‘Lady Sings the Blues’

When the 1972 film “Lady Sings the Blues” aired the other night on one of the many DISH network channels, it was hard not to think of the original autobiography of Billie Holiday that was reissued in an anniversary edition in 2006. When you watch the movie, which I like, you’re seeing a bit of Diana Ross simmered and stirred into Holiday. I think you get closer to the real Billie When you read the book–though it’s hard to separate out the influences of those who helped her write it. I’ve heard all her songs and think they’re the best way to understand Holiday, especially if you have a version with analog sound instead of the always-slightly-false digital approach. (My bias.)

From the Publisher

“Perfect for fans of The United States vs. Billie Holiday, this is the fiercely honest, no-holds-barred memoir of the legendary jazz, swing, and standards singing sensation—a fiftieth-anniversary edition updated with stunning new photos, a revised discography, and an insightful foreword by music writer David Ritz

“Taking the reader on a fast-moving journey from Billie Holiday’s rough-and-tumble Baltimore childhood (where she ran errands at a whorehouse in exchange for the chance to listen to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith albums), to her emergence on Harlem’s club scene, to sold-out performances with the Count Basie Orchestra and with Artie Shaw and his band, this revelatory memoir is notable for its trenchant observations on the racism that darkened Billie’s life and the heroin addiction that ended it too soon. 

“We are with her during the mesmerizing debut of “Strange Fruit”; with her as she rubs shoulders with the biggest movie stars and musicians of the day (Bob Hope, Lana Turner, Clark Gable, Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and more); and with her through the scrapes with Jim Crow, spats with Sarah Vaughan, ignominious jailings, and tragic decline. All of this is told in Holiday’s tart, streetwise style and hip patois that makes it read as if it were written yesterday.”

I’ve read conflicting claims about Holiday’s acceptance as an artist after she recorded her most powerful song, “Strange Fruit.” Some say she found it harder to work after that while others say her status when up. The song is a strong indictment of the lynchings of African Americans.



Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the Florida Folk Magic Series of novels in which the blues have a strong presence.