The Great Lost Jazz Memoir: Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday

With all this acting experience behind me, Shelton thought I was ready for a crack at the movies. Not Hollywood, just Astoria, Long Island. He got me a part out there playing mob scenes in a picture with Paul Robeson. From that I got a real part in a short featuring Duke Ellington. It was a musical, with a little story to it, and it gave me a chance to sing a song — a real weird and pretty blues number. That was the good thing about the part.

The rough part, of course, was that I had to play a chippie. Opposite me there was a comedian who’ll kill me because I can’t remember his name. He played my pimp or sweetheart. He was supposed to knock me around.

He knocked me down about twenty times the first day of shooting. Each time I took a fall I landed on the hard old floor painted to look like sidewalk. And there was nothing to break my falls except the flesh on my bones. The second morning when I showed up at the studio I was so sore I couldn’t even think about breaking my falls. I must have hit that hard painted pavement about fifty times before the man hollered “Cut.”

I saw a little bit of this epic one time at the studio, but that was all. Mom, of course, thought I was going to be a big movie star and she told everyone to watch for the picture. I don’t know if anybody else saw it, but we never did. It was just a short subject, something they filled in with when they couldn’t get Mickey Mouse. We’d have had to hire a private detective to find out where the hell it was playing.

What a voice. Rich, dark, sassy, slangy and street-smart. Funny, bitter, bristling with innocent joy. I’m talking about Billie Holiday’s voice, but I’m not talking about her singing voice. I’m talking about her memoir, Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday with William Dufty, published in 1956:

We’ve been looking at some great lost rock memoirs (by Ian McLagan, Dee Dee Ramone and Chuck Berry) lately, and some of these feel pretty vintage today. But the earliest rock memoirs have nothing on the early jazz memoirs for raw authenticity. The best jazz memoir of them all may be Billie Holiday’s slender but gut-punching tome, which was turned into a popular movie starring Diana Ross in 1972, but should be read, not watched, for full effect.

Eleanora Fagan was born dirt poor in 1915 and shuffled between broken homes, reform schools and jails in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City throughout her young life, She scrubbed rich people’s homes for nickels, was raped at age ten, then spent her early teenage years in a bleak reform school on Manhattan’s Roosevelt Island, then called Welfare Island, before becoming a prostitute at 14. She liked to sing Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong songs while she scrubbed, and eventually she gathered her courage and auditioned at a Harlem bar.

It turned out she was the very epitome of a natural singer, with amazingly expressive instincts, and she shot quickly to fame. As some actors are character actors, Billie Holiday (the name Eleanora Fagan took on) was a character singer, imbuing emotion and personality into every word, enunciating with a wide range of vocalizations. In her voice you could hear a child crying, an angel humming, a mouse squeaking. Modulating her theatrical impulses with a self-trained instinct for timing and a disciplined command of tonal control, she revolutionized jazz singing, and is still remembered as one of the great voices of all time.

It turns out that Billie Holiday tell stories as well as she sings. Maybe better. She loves to talk, and often hovers above philosophical themes, as when she evokes the Greek philosopher Heraclitus:

No two people on earth are alike, and it’s got to be that way in music or it isn’t music.

I never forget this wonderful old Spaniard Pablo Casals, who played the cello once on TV. When he finished some Bach he was interviewed by some American chick. “Every time you play it, it’s different,” she gushed.

“It must be different,” says Casals. “How can it be otherwise? Nature is so. And we are nature.

So there you are. You can’t even be like you once were yourself, let alone like somebody else.

She wields slang as expertly as Jack Kerouac, and is always amused by her own quirky life, even when life serves her nothing but problems. In this book, she goes to jail early in life and returns over and over. She marries repeatedly, attaches herself to one man after another, and eventually loses much of her self-control (though, from the evidence of this book, none of her self-respect) through severe heroin addiction. But Billie’s tough. In the pages of Lady Sings the Blues, she smirks through all the pain, always finding the wit in the situation, as when she is arrested in California.

It was Joe Tenner, boss of the club, who went to bat and called Jake Ehrlich, a famous San Francisco criminal lawyer. Mr. Ehrlich recently allowed his biography to be written. My trial is included in it as one of his “picturesque criminal cases”. I thought he was picturesque myself that day when he walked in and got me and John Levy out on bail.

The anecdote at the top of this article about Holiday’s attempt to be a film star shows her tendency toward comic self-effacement — because the short film she’s talking about here was no Mickey Mouse cartoon. It was Duke Ellington’s 1935 masterpiece Symphony in Black, an attempt to update George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with a grittier African-American jazz/classical synthesis. It’s no surprise that Duke Ellington, who could have chosen any singer in the world, chose Billie Holiday for this ambitious cinematic work. You can watch the entire 9 and a half-minute short here, including Billie Holiday’s sidewalk fight, followed by her big number and some jazz combo dancing that I like almost as much as Bang Bang by

As an early pop music memoir, Lady Sings the Blues was written without heavy editorial oversight, and the word on the street is that many of the facts don’t check out. The book was “written” via interviews with William Dufty, who assembled the book from their conversations and didn’t do any advanced fact-checking. So, these are the stories Billie Holiday told. The artistry is all in the telling.

True, not true — does it matter? The book definitely tells the truth about what it felt like to be raped at age ten, and then to get blamed for being raped in juvenile court. That’s plenty enough truth for me.

Here’s Billie singing Fine and Mellow:

And here’s Strange Fruit, one of her signature songs, and an extremely intense number:

I love this memoir even though I am not particularly a committed Billie Holiday fan. I’m much more likely to groove out to Sarah Vaughan, who was nine years younger than Billie Holiday and added a smooth melodic touch to the rough-edged Billie Holiday sound. But Sarah Vaughan did not invent herself from the ashes like Billie Holiday, and she could never have told stories like Billie Holiday. It’s not surprising that Billie Holiday could tell great stories, as she was also a songwriter (God Bless the Child, for instance, was her own composition).

(If Sarah Vaughan could have written like Billie Holiday, she might have gotten revenge, since Billie Holiday savages her younger competitor — with a gentle feline touch, of course — in a couple of amusing scenes in Lady Sings the Blues)

Billie Holiday’s life story really was a tragedy, because she lived much of her childhood, adolescent and adult life either in jail or under threat of police persecution. Like Chuck Berry, she was constantly sent back to jail for one mild offense after another (clearly, it was not always safe in 20th Century USA to be a successful African-American musician, especially a bawdy and uppity one with a taste for the fast life).

It’s a tragic fact that Billie Holiday struggled for money at every moment of her life. Even when she had it she didn’t have it, and she never learned how to handle money and was exploited and stolen from constantly by men she wanted to trust.

The rock singer Lou Reed must have loved Lady Sings the Blues, because his tribute song Lady Day encapsulates the beginning and ending of this book in two succinct verses. First, we see her auditioning at the little Harlem club:

When she walked on down the street
She was like a child staring at her feet
But when she passed the bar
And she heard the music play
She had to go in and sing
It had to be that way

Then, in the short song’s second verse, we fast-forward to the end of her life.

After the applause had died down
And the people drifted away
She climbed down off the bar
And went out the door
To the hotel
That she called home
It had greenish walls
A bathroom in the hall

Billie Holiday died while being arrested for drug abuse in 1959, three years after Lady Sings the Blues was published.

10 Responses

  1. …damn, those old horn
    …damn, those old horn players could blow blues!…she was feeling what she was singing and grooving to the band. authenticity. learning a bit more about her life, you can tell where it comes from. the pictures that must’ve run through her head as she was performing. ‘treats me so awwwful mean.” and i know he did. beyond blues, beyond jazz, soul music man. soul music… wow!! the trumpet player just ripped one off!…

  2. Billie Holiday is one of my
    Billie Holiday is one of my favorite singers. Her life was that of the old time blues singers – hard, always struggling for money and even survival, as Levi describes. But her music is pure jazz. The album titled “Lady Sings the Blues” is a good place to start to appreciate her amazing voice. Songs like “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit” are real classics.

  3. Some people are prisoners of
    Some people are prisoners of context. If Billie Holliday’s memoirs can’t be examined without reference to the music of our times (which is execrable in comparison), then reading it is a waste of time.

  4. Dan — I guess you are
    Hi Dan — I guess you are referring to my Lou Reed coda? Well, your comments are always welcome, but cutting through context to tie different eras and movements and styles together has always been my fascination as a culture critic, and it’s what I do constantly on this blog. Note the logo of Paul Verlaine on a fake Polaroid photo. If you’re looking for a blog that keeps different artistic eras and styles segregated and pure, you’ve come to the wrong place!

  5. Hi Levi –
    Hi Levi –

    Great, great piece. I wasn’t sure if you were aware, but Lester Young & Holiday were close, and performed together frequently, through (I believe) most of their careers. Until they had a falling out. I believe that video of Lester Young & Holiday performing Fine & Mellow was their first and only reunion after their fight – which really adds meaning to the moment when Lester solos & Holiday’s smile as she listens to him. (I can’t claim credit for this information – I learned it from Ken Burn’s Jazz documentary, which is also pretty amazing).

    I heard a recording in a cab a few months ago of Vaughan which was much less refined than what I’m used to hearing from her. In fact, I think I lost some major points with the driver when I asked him if it was Holiday. I’m used to recordings of her doing “songbooks” and this seemed to be something altogether different. If you have any ideas as to what it might have been, I’d be in your debt!

  6. Thanks for this, Tara! Yes,
    Thanks for this, Tara! Yes, Billie writes a lot about her friendship with Lester Young in this memoir. She doesn’t really focus on their falling out (I think Billie Holiday liked to accentuate the positive) but she says a lot about how well they supported each other.

    I wish I knew what that Sarah Vaughan song you heard was so I could listen to it!

  7. I love everything about the
    I love everything about the lady. wish I was around when she was alive.

  8. Grew up listening to the
    Grew up listening to the strains of Lady Day on my mom’s HI-FI. Her voice still echoes fresh across the face of time.

  9. By the way Levi…..goes with
    By the way Levi…..miss your news and links here, so many things going down in the world of beat these days……maybe rent-a-Beatnik will come back:)

  10. Hey WIREMAN … The Facebook
    Hey WIREMAN … The Facebook page is where I’m posting links now … Different format, same content. Rent-a-Beatnik — damn, they should hire you and me.

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