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The First Lady of Song

By Julia Blackburn
Pantheon, 354 pp. $25

book cover

As with Frank Sinatra, as with Aretha Franklin, as with Elvis Presley, as with George Jones, as with Nat King Cole, as with Sarah Vaughan, as with Johnny Cash, as with Al Green, as with Kurt Cobain, as with--unfortunately, but it must be said--Snoop Dogg, coming to terms with Billie Holiday means penetrating an unfathomable mystery: her voice. To one extent or another this holds for most good singers, and my list--while politely making room for Vaughan and her gravitas in addition to the odious Dogg--is limited by age, happenstance and personal bias as well as the need to stop somewhere. For instance, it excludes the "classical" tradition, whereas Roland Barthes's seminal 1972 essay "The Grain of the Voice" was inspired by lieder specialist Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who Barthes reported "reigns more or less unchallenged over the recording of vocal music," as if Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and for that matter Edith Piaf had never existed. Nevertheless, it is in popular music, so much less stringent as to technical standards and so much more invested in performer mystique, that grain reigns.

That Billie Holiday was blessed with an extraordinary instrument isn't immediately apparent even to those who admire her. As Henry Pleasants put it, she had "a meager voice--small, hoarse at the bottom and thinly shrill on top, with top and bottom never very far apart." And what little she had she wrecked. When I discovered her in 1959, she had died a few months earlier at 43, so like most of my contemporaries, I formed my bond with the Holiday the rock critic Carol Cooper calls "our lady of perpetual suffering." By the mid-1950s, her timbre often cracked and her melodies sometimes staggered, especially on off-label live recordings like the one I bought. If you'd asked me why I liked her, I would have cited her ability to contain pain (only then I would have made the verb a bald and inaccurate "express"), her sly improvisations (which often prove less radical than that truism implies) and her "swing," a concept that like "flow" in hip-hop covers up a myriad of inexactitudes--Holiday's time in particular is a wonder that resists analysis as unflappably as her sound. These were and continue to be the standard answers, and they're all essential to her matchless achievement. But they don't nearly explain her fascination.

Julia Blackburn's fascination with Billie Holiday began when she was 14, at a party thrown by her mother that featured two prostitutes and two people dancing around with their clothes off and an old man giving her the eye and her mother giving the old man the eye. Blackburn "escaped to a far corner" and spent the night playing a 1975 compilation called A Billie Holiday Memorial--most of it from the 1930s, the finale from the lush, lost 1958 Lady in Satin. Next day she bought the LP, which she's kept ever since. A quarter of a century later, still entranced by "the way her voice could chase out my fears," Blackburn decided to write a book about Holiday. The author of two well-regarded novels and several works of history, she elected to focus not on Holiday's voice but on her life, which for many feels like the closest thing they can get to it. So she contracted with promoter Toby Byron to examine the Linda Kuehl archive: a trove of taped interviews, laborious and sometimes inaccurate transcripts of those tapes, documents, artifacts and slivers of biography previously accessed by Holiday chroniclers Robert O'Meally and Donald Clarke, although Blackburn is the first to examine more than the transcripts. Kuehl assembled this material over many years; her plan to write a definitive biography died when she committed suicide in 1979.

Strangely, Blackburn couldn't write a biography either. Instead, in something like desperation, she assembled portraits of Kuehl's interviewees, and these, added together in all their contradictory subjectivity, constitute her portrait of Holiday. Fortunately for Blackburn, the ploy worked. With Billie is a compelling and intelligent book, less in its exposition than in the way it's conceived and assembled. But so are O'Meally's coffee-table "biographical essay" Lady Day and Clarke's biography Wishing on the Moon and Farah Jasmine Griffin's 2001 If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, written without Kuehl because Griffin couldn't afford the fee. All are worth reading, and that is a credit to Holiday's profundity--she's inexhaustible.

Lady Day is where to start. O'Meally, a professor of jazz studies and African-American literature at Columbia, concentrates on music and musters the sanest and fullest overview, detailed and perceptive critically and sympathetic psychologically; he never brushes past her personal faults because he believes they're subsumed by her aesthetic virtues. Clarke, a popular-music historian, brings immense factual resources to bear on the most complete picture of Holiday we have. But he's a militant middlebrow, and his confident assertions regarding Holiday's sexuality--she was a "masochist," he avers in a more clinical tone than he has any right to--tempt one to reciprocate ("male chauvinist" who likes the ladies more than they like him). Griffin's polemically black feminist perspective is far less mechanistic than Angela Davis's in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, and welcome in a field of discourse where, as recently as 1997, Leslie Gourse's twenty-five-contributor The Billie Holiday Companion included just one black and two women, including Gourse herself. Griffin is both open-minded and hardheaded, as when she observes that the widely disparaged Diana Ross vehicle Lady Sings the Blues, based in theory on Holiday's notoriously inaccurate 1956 as-told-to with William Dufty, inspired a boom in Holiday scholarship extending well beyond the works just cited, thus vastly enriching our understanding of Holiday and her art.

Blackburn's principal contribution to that understanding is a sense of who Holiday's friends were. The interviews about her Baltimore girlhood constitute an oral history of a 1920s ghetto, not such an easy thing to come by; the later materials, which predominate, do the same for the jazz life, which is better documented, and also the sporting life, which is less so. But it's the sum of the documentation that's so impressive. Billie Holiday was a difficult, profane and sometimes imperious woman. She was a junkie and an alcoholic; she had sex with many men and women; she was hot-tempered and ready to clock anyone who gave her grief. Yet the love emanating from these interviews flows never-ending. Holiday wasn't just adored by her fans (to an unusual degree for a nonsuperstar, although not for what today we call a cult artist); she was adored by her friends and colleagues, and the paucity of backbiting is a clue to her greatness. Most artists are selfish as a way of life, and Holiday would always take what was offered her, especially if it would get her high. But she was also great fun to be around, certainly up till her miserable end and often then, and generous by nature, by which I mean something less showy and manipulative than the impulsive largesse of a Presley or Sinatra. She attracted her circle not with her power or charisma but with her spirit.

To Blackburn's credit, the sporting lifers come through as remarkable individuals: the stepfather who cherished Billie and the stepmother who envied her; the dancer who was her mother's confidante and the good-time girl who was her pharmacist's wife; the pimp and the madam; the two comedians and the five pianists; the white Southern bisexual woman who froze her out and the white Southern homosexual man who propped her up; John Levy the Good who played bass as opposed to John Levy the Evil who played her; the mousy secretary and the slick lawyer who shared her last days; the narc who busted her and still thought he was her friend. Holiday's last husband, Louis McKay, is captured in a brutal taped phone call, and Blackburn adds to Kuehl's roster portraits of spaced-out sweetheart Lester Young and people- collecting bitch Tallulah Bankhead. She also goes on about the irrationality of US narcotics policy, although she argues cogently that Holiday's heroin addiction was less severe than myth would have it--she seemed to kick at will, and even the chief witness for the prosecution, accompanist Carl Drinkard, who clearly wanted to believe Holiday was as hopeless a junkie as he was, allows that unlike him she didn't shoot up to get straight: "It was not just to keep from getting sick; she actually enjoyed using drugs." Although many claimed she was only happy singing (and many claimed she didn't believe she could sing), Blackburn's Holiday is a woman who enjoyed a lot of things. As O'Meally concludes, she chose very young to reject the straight world, and she had a ball doing it.

"People don't think I like laughing. They don't think I lead any kind of normal life," Holiday complained to secretary Alice Vrbsky. And she had a right. By 1957 or so, Holiday's circumstances were bleak. She'd lost friends, she hated McKay as she'd come to hate all the other toughs who'd turned her on, and with no manager and an unearned reputation as a no-show, she wasn't getting enough club work, although Norman Granz had been overseeing some of her greatest sessions. But as Blackburn and Griffin insist, our lady of perpetual suffering was a reductive sensationalization based on her 1947 heroin conviction, which was probably a setup. Not that Holiday resisted the cliché the way she might have. Her autobiography cashed in on her notoriety, and because hard living--especially alcohol--had roughed up her instrument and sapped her sass, her late recordings often foreground her pain. Nevertheless, musically and personally, the transmutation of suffering was never all or even most of what Billie Holiday was about. Coming up when I did, I used to share O'Meally's view that the late recordings old-timers disparage were markedly superior to the music of her 20s--in O'Meally's words, "more nuanced and evocative." But listening intensively as I've read these books, I've come to feel not that their vocal attractions are somehow lacking, because her voice almost always comes through, but that they don't laugh enough--even if, as O'Meally makes clear, they laugh more than I could once discern.

An illegitimate child shunned by the striving family that never fully accepted her, Holiday was a bad girl on principle. She was singing for money before she left Baltimore at 13, but for much of her adolescence she also worked as a prostitute. The scant evidence is tantalizingly complex, but from Blackburn and the others it would seem that these two vocations overlapped--that the pimps and players she liked to hang with dug her because she could sing, because she took no shit and because she was a real party girl, none of which meant she didn't need to earn cash on her back. Speaking from the naïve perspective of someone who's never known or patronized a prostitute, I connect this to the mystery of Holiday's voice--a voice that gives its most exquisite pleasure by taking pleasure, just as what defines a quality hooker is her ability to convince her johns that they get her hot (and, who knows, maybe sometimes they do). There's something so casually delighted yet so hip and cool about Holiday's timing, tone and timbre--so willing, yet so impossible to fool.

The willing part wasn't merely a function of Holiday's soft-edged croon but of her musical attitude. It's invariably said that Holiday torpedoes the banality of the Tin Pan Alley dross she was compelled to sing in the 1930s by transforming the songs' melodies, and one way O'Meally argues for the late work is by laying out how extreme these revisions became. But as Clarke points out more than once, many of the songs were expertly crafted, and as O'Meally emphasizes, Holiday was generally given several to choose from. Moreover, the assumption that to reconceive a melody is to improve it is among other things a rejection of the satisfying structural certitudes in which pop composers specialize--a rejection, that is, of the square world in which things resolve almost but not quite as you'd dreamed. In the 1930s, when she was an optimistic kid--before she turned 25 in 1940, she'd already put in stints with Count Basie and Artie Shaw and altered the course of her career by starting to sing (and climax her sets with) Abel Meeropol's antilynching song-poem "Strange Fruit"--Holiday showed a more nuanced sense of how to keep her johns coming back for more.

Compilations are the efficient way to access a singer in history, and Columbia has cherry-picked a bunch of fine ones, starting with Lady Day: The Best of Billie Holiday and A Fine Romance. But dip anywhere into the ten-CD Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944--the outtakes, the air checks, the near crap, anywhere--and you will hear first of all not one of the twentieth century's consummate jazz artists but a dynamite pop singer. Zoom in whenever the fancy strikes you and Holiday will certainly be personalizing the tune with her compliant cunning as she enunciates the lyric in her crystalline drawl. Usually the lyric will be faring better than all those accounts of how she undercuts moon-June clichés would have you believe, and usually the tune will be the thing yet not the thing, a crucial pop mode that long preceded Holiday and has been ascendant since the 1970s. But definitely there will be art going on, and definitely it will make your mind go pitter-pat. Lose concentration, however, and your aesthetic emotions will still get a proper workout. Massaged by the unfathomable, they'll give it up to background music.

Please don't think I'm trying to drag Billie Holiday by the gardenia into some quotidian realm she long ago transcended. Every realm is hers, and every good thing people say about her is true. I've learned to love the 1940s Deccas, wish their strings and big bands had gained her the hits she coveted, and I adore the Verves. The Lady in Autumn set is the pinnacle of her jazz artistry--evocative and nuanced, breath of my youth and intimation of my mortality. Yet it too shows off Holiday's capacity to give pleasure by taking pleasure. In the 1950s, with narcotics and inebriants eating away at her immense vitality and John Levy the Evil replaced by Big Handsome Spousal Abuser Louis McKay, it's hard to say whether she was an old whore whose skills were second nature or a dedicated artist whose best self emerged in song. Probably both, and whatever the explanation, her spirit remains a gift to anyone who'll let it in.

But her spirit couldn't have soared or penetrated without her voice. Throughout her life this was a feel-good voice, easy to listen to in the sense that 1930s guys used to say a doll was easy to look at. Early on its signal virtue is that despite the thinness Pleasants is right to cite, it's also round, firm, even plump and gorgeous--which by an odd coincidence is pretty much how people recall her beauty in those days. Later on it's started to sag, that burnished glow coarsened a little. Yet what's underneath the skin--the nerve endings, the musculature, the living flesh itself--remains intact. And always it remains a mystery.

The Nation, June 27, 2005