Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Billie Holiday autobiography: Lady Sings the Blues

I recently spent a couple of weeks overseas visiting my parents in Canada. They happen to live near a fantastic secondhand bookstore where I picked up a copy of the Billie Holiday autobiography "Lady Sings the Blues".

Co-written with William Dufty in 1956 - only three years before Billie's death at the age of 44 - the book is a short, easy read and really gives you a window into Billie's extraordinary life of great successes and even greater tragedies and hardships.

Although ghostwritten by Dufty based largely on interviews with Holiday, the book is very much written in Billie's voice - you really feel as though you are sitting in a dark jazz club after hours at a table with Billie as she recounts her life through a series of stories and anecdotes.

The book has been criticized in the press for containing factual errors, but whether this is or is not the case, it's worth reading. Even if Billie 'stretches the truth' in some regards (and really, who hasn't done so when recounting a personal anecdote), it's a great read because it's Billie telling her own story, as she sees it.

The book covers Billie's struggles with drug use and subsequent brushes with the law for narcotics possession, but I felt that she left out certain aspects and I would have liked a little more insight into how the drug use affected her in her daily life. She details how she gets busted, goes to trial and is sent to jail, but glosses over details of how she got hooked and her usage of heroin and its prevalence in the music scene at the time. According to an online book reviewer (whose mother was in the music industry at the same time as Holiday), Holiday's addiction was well-known in the business and earned her the nickname 'Miss Needles' - this is not recounted in the book.

Apart from those criticisms, the book is a wonderful read, and transports you fully back to New York in the swing era, with Billie's unmistakeable voice as your guide:

"There was a wild cat who used to come around the joint all the time and he drove a crazy foreign car. Every time he got in it to take off, it sounded like a B-29, and the Famous Door management didn't like that.

Anyway, we got friendly with him, and he got friendly with us, and it cost both Teddy and me our first jobs on 52nd Street. We got our asses fraternized right off the street."
I'm a big fan of Holiday's music, and for me reading the book has given an added richness and texture to her songs. Long live the irreplaceable Lady Day.

Read a list of comments on the book here.