Thank you, Lady Day

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If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.” – Billie Holiday

For a little while now I’ve been avoiding the new documentary on Billie Holiday, “Billie” directed by James Erskine.  I knew it was coming, and although I’d not read any reviews in advance, something told me my avoidance wasn’t just pandemic ennui (fancy talk for ‘exhausted.”) Anyway, I went to On Demand on demanded “Billie.”  My instincts were correct — badly put together, based on tapes made way back in the 70’s by writer Linda Lipnack Kuehl who died before she ever wrote her Holiday book. (Her death, a probable suicide, is considered — by her family, anyway — “mysterious.”  No offense, but — I don’t care, and too much of the documentary focuses on Kuehl’s life. )

Hard to say what Kuehl’s book would have been, based on the snippets of interviews we hear — all SHE seems to want to hear about is “did Billie turn tricks?…”Did she like men who beat her”…”Did she like women, too?” lots of drug recollections.  In short, nothing we don’t already know or assume. Precious few clips(some unnecessarily colorized) of Holiday in performance are at least a bit of a relief from the endless tales of misery. 

Judy Garland was a mess, so was Piaf, but both have been put on the documentary screen with a surplus of music and an assumption we knew the back-story well enough not to wallow in it. But, watching, put me in the mood for some Billie, and while in the mood, I recalled that only last summer — a season still full of meeting friends and crowded restaurants and hugs — I’d written of my passion for Billie, right here.  And so, with 2020 ending (thank God!) and some light at the end of at least one tunnel let me take you back, just a bit. 

Unrequited love’s a bore
And I’ve got it pretty bad

But for someone you adore
It’s a pleasure to be sad.

Lyrics from the Rodgers and Hart song, “Glad to be Unhappy,” sung most evocatively by Billie Holiday on her last, masterpiece album, “Lady in Satin.”

RECENTLY, over drinks with my friend writer/director Charles Casillo, we got into a margarita-drenched discussion of great female singers — this was shortly after the passing of Doris Day, whom we both agreed was under-appreciated, in all ways.

My friend and I ruminated over the sounds of Ella, Peggy, Judy, Morgana King, Dakota Staton, Etta James, Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, Piaf, Aretha, Barbra, Lena, Dinah Washington, Rosemary Clooney, k.d. lang, Keely Smith, Anita O’ Day — we ran a tequila-fueled gamut.

Finally, Charles asked me if I had to make a choice to take just one album with me to a desert island, what would it be?  Unhesitatingly I said “Lady in Satin.”

I know, I know.  You’d think on a desert island I’d want something a bit more upbeat than an album that features songs such as “I’m a Fool to Want You,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well.” But, as Miss Holiday sings: “For someone you adore, it’s a pleasure to be sad.”

Time and time again, I said I’d leave you … but then would come the time when I would need you.

Truth be told, if I was being banished to that island, I’d insist on ALL my Holiday recordings.  Her voice moves me consistently, in all its permutations — light and seemingly unscarred by life, harsh and even more evocative as her narrow range narrows even more, and she brilliantly uses all she’s got to make every word, every syllable, every shade of emotion, count.

While her life and death was indeed tragic — although we mustn’t forget that Billie knew how to have a good time! —her music does not make me sad.  Even “Lady in Satin” which critics tell you is Billie’s voice in ruin, uplifts me.  The album is an education in life.  If you don’t understand “Lady in Satin,” or much of what came before it (everything on the Verve label, for example), then you really don’t know what love is.

My introduction to Billie Holiday came with the release of Diana Ross’s “Lady Sings the Blues.”

My knowledge of Holiday was nil, this was Ross’s first film — tremendous anticipation right there! — she performed some of Billie’s greatest songs in a style slightly modified (so I’d read) to coincide with Holiday’s unique phrasing (of which I knew nothing.) The movie presented Miss Ross either decked out to the nines, raving in a straight jacket, or drugged up and collapsing mid-performances (a staple scene in all tortured-lady-singer bio-pics.) It seemed like great acting. I loved the vinyl album, wore it out!  So, that was Billie Holiday, I assumed.

Well loved, worn out, but never played again after hearing the real deal!

A couple of years passed and one day I found myself down in Greenwich Village at the old Footlights Record Store (now sadly gone) which specialized in vinyl.  I was looking for another copy Judy Garland’s magnificent Capitol album, “Alone.”  I found it. But glancing up at the wall, mounted in a frame was Holiday’s “Lady in Satin.”

There was Billie, in a dramatic three-quarter shot, hair snatched back elegantly, shoulders bare.  On the spot I fell in love with the photograph.  I had to have that record!  I bought it, took it home, put it on my turntable and played it and played it and played it. I never listened to the movie soundtrack of “Lady Sings the Blues” again.  And I have come to find the film unbearable.

(Still, my great memory of the movie — a memory I’ll always treasure — was seeing it at a midnight showing on Broadway.  The audience was almost entirely African-American, and the response to Ross was thrilling. One rarely experienced that sort of thing — vocal, visceral, adoring — in a movie house.  It seemed all but certain that Ross would become a major movie star. This did not happen, thanks in large part to the overbearing influence of mentor Berry Gordy, but in that moment, in 1972, the future was plump with promise for Miss Ross.)

Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972).

As time went on, I collected more and more Holiday.  As much as I admired, appreciated, was moved by others (I’m looking right at you, Miss Garland) it was Billie’s voice that, well — informed my life, if you will. The soundtrack of my experiences. (Emphasis on “some.”  I can never inhabit the terrible world of “Strange Fruit.”  But who does not laud Holiday’s courage singing it, rendering the ghastly truths more powerful as each year passed — as black bodies continued to “swing in the Southern trees …”)

Once, many years ago, I thought I’d lost a great love.  And what played in my head as I tried to forget, partying with ruthless gaiety?  Billie singing the Duke Ellington/Irving Mills/Mitchell Parish ballad “Sophisticated Lady” —

Smoking, drinking, never thinking of tomorrow, nonchalant/ Diamonds shining, dancing, dining with some man in a restaurant
Is that all you really want? No, sophisticated lady
I know, you miss the love you lost long ago
And when nobody is nigh … you cry.

I had no diamonds. I didn’t smoke. I wasn’t very nonchalant.  I was most assuredly not sophisticated! But when nobody was nigh, I cried.  And I felt Miss Holiday understood.  Thank you, Lady Day.

Oh, I didn’t lose that love, as it turned out.

But, that’s too happy an ending for a Billie Holiday ballad.

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