Certainly no singer has been more mythologized and more misunderstood than Billie Holiday, who helped to create much of the mystique herself with her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. “Now, finally, we have a definitive biography,” said Booklist of Donald Clarke’s Billie Holiday, “by a deeply compassionate, respectful, and open-minded biographer [whose] portrait embraces every facet of Holiday’s paradoxical nature, from her fierceness to her vulnerability, her childlikeness to her innate elegance and amazing strength.” Clarke was given unrivaled access to a treasure trove of interviews from the 1970s—interviews with those who knew Lady Day from her childhood in the streets and good-time houses of Baltimore through the early days of success in New York and into the years of fame, right up to her tragic decline and death at the age of forty-four. Clarke uses these interviews to separate fact from fiction and, in the words of the Seattle Times, “finally sets us straight. . .evoking her world in all its anguish, triumph, force and irony.” Newsday called this “a thoroughly riveting account of Holiday and her milieu.” The New York Times raved that it “may be the most thoroughly valuable of the many books on Holiday,” and Helen Oakley Dance in JazzTimes said, “We should probably have to wait a long time for another life of Billie Holiday to supersede Donald Clarke’s achievement.”
BOOK REVIEW / Lady Night, Lady Day: ‘Wishing on the Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday’ – Donald Clarke
I’M SQUEAMISH about drugs. Like one of Billie Holiday’s friends, the drummer Roy Harte, I could faint at the sight of a needle; and Wishing on the Moon is a bit tough in places for ‘those of a nervous disposition’. That’s not the only reason I approached the book with trepidation: Donald Clarke, who claims much greater accuracy than in earlier books about Lady Day, previously edited The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, and if that book is as inaccurate throughout as in the bits that I know something about it should be taken with a very great deal of salt.
I needn’t have worried. Between 1970 and 1972, Linda Lipnack Kuehl interviewed more than 150 people who knew Billie Holiday and have since died; Clarke has been able to use this material and publish it for the first time. The result is a marvellous book, from which emerges a picture of a woman with whose music you will want to become better acquainted (wherever you’re starting from) and who was loved by everyone – except, of course, by her ‘lovers’.
For this is a book of contradictions. William Dufty, ghost-writer of her ‘autobiography’, said she was the funniest woman he had ever known, and there are many examples of her jazz-musician humour throughout; she shared it with her soul- mate, tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who gave her a dog called Bessie Mae Moocho, after the then current hit song ‘Besame Mucho’. But the other side was horror; there was another dog, Mister, said to be a junkie because it amused Holiday and her friends to inject him with heroin.
Witnesses queue to tell us how much they loved Holiday – and how readily they forgave her selfishness, vindictiveness and bullying. She ‘was conscious of being a great artist’, renowned for her assured ‘presence’; but she herself ‘really didn’t think she was a good singer’ and she was often terrified of making public appearances. She manipulated her men, but the last of them, Louis McKay, ‘finally married her so that she couldn’t testify against him’.
And what a bunch they were] One of the important ones was called John Levy, and to differentiate him from John Levy the bassist he isn’t referred to as ‘John Levy the manager’, or ‘John Levy the boyfriend’, but as ‘John Levy the pimp’. When he died, Billie’s accompanist and friend Bobby Tucker complained ‘he didn’t even have the courtesy to let somebody shoot him’.
Of course, the contradictions are standard junkie stuff: the more you get high, the lower you go. And the book itself becomes somewhat contradictory. Clarke is keen to replace the received image of Lady as a tragic icon of pain and suffering with a picture of a life that was in truth ‘far richer’. But he seems confused: on one hand he repeatedly says (and so does she) that she chose all this herself, she’d never have been happy ‘on the right side of the fence’, she ran from good men and wanted only those who would beat her; on the other, he wants us to blame those men, and the ‘self-righteous law of the puritans’, for driving her into their clutches. Is a masochist a victim? Another accompanist, Memry Midgett, tried really hard to help her to leave McKay and get a decent manager, but at the last minute Billie’s nerve failed.
Everyone in the entertainment business has at least one story of corporate nose-cutting to facilitate face-spiting. Clarke describes as ‘heartbreaking’ the example of Lady’s being unable to record with Count Basie’s orchestra, with which she sang for almost a year, because they were under contract to different companies. John Hammond, her record producer at the time, does not come out of this story – or indeed the whole book – particularly well; I couldn’t but wonder if this was quite fair, as if Clarke’s judgement is based on more information than he’s imparting.
But he writes wonderfully about the records, from the first session in 1933 with Benny Goodman to the sad and bitter end, at which point, some said, they shouldn’t still have been recording her. But as he recounts her decline with great sympathy – and passion, too, when it comes to the narcotics laws and their inhumane application to Lady in her last days – Clarke insists that we need every record she made.
And in the end it’s the recordings that we have to remember her by. For that reason I’d have liked a discography, and a bibliography, too – and the index isn’t perfect. But when I got to the end of the book, and to the end of Billie Holiday’s story, I cried. The singer and dancer Marie Bryant said of Lady Day and Lester Young: ‘They . . . couldn’t make it on the terms of the world . . . God had given them this pure way of expressing themselves, but they’d be appalled, if they were here now, by the crassness . . . Today they’d be gone even faster.’
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