Billie Holiday’s life was a mess. It should come as no surprise then, that the many books about the legendary, doomed jazz singer can also be a messy affair. Her own account, Lady Sings The Blues, is a captivating read; unfortunately that “autobiography” (“co-authored “ by William Duffy), is largely held to be inaccurate. Indeed, the very first words, “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three" are simply not true. Duffy admitted “fact checking wasn’t his concern” and Holiday herself famously proclaimed, “I haven’t read it.” The movie, starring Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams, played even faster and looser with the facts. There are countless books out there on Lady Day, many merely recycling the myths, half-truths and flat out falsehoods.
Wishing On The Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday by Donald Clarke is meticulously researched and annotated, drawing heavily on the archives of Linda Kuehl, who from 1970-1972 interviewed nearly 150 people involved with Holiday. Clarke, the editor and principal author of The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, provides a chronological narrative, clarifying or puncturing many of the misconceptions and myths about Billie Holiday.
The early biographical detail is not an easy read, but it is critical in understanding where many of Holiday’s relationship issues come from. Holiday’s journey from the House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls to the Apollo Theater, from casual prostitution to joining Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson and Count Basie’s bands are richly recounted. Clarke provides staggering detail about Holiday’s live appearances, and we hear from many of those musicians who shared the stage with Holiday. To a man they consider Holiday a “musician” rather than a singer and, more often than not, one of the boys. She could drink, swear and ball with the best of them. And, like many jazz musicians of the day, marijuana was omnipresent and she could “smoke reefers” with the best of them as well.
Holiday was also caught up in an endless cycle of men who would abuse her physically, emotionally and financially. While it’s hard to tell whether the abusive relationships were the reason she would eventually turn to heroin for comfort, the two would prove a disastrous combination. Several husbands and managers were complicit in Holiday’s addiction, keeping her high in order to steal the money that was now coming in. Even knowing how the story turns out, it’s heartbreaking to follow Holiday to her death, surprisingly from cirrhosis and not heroin, at the age of 44.
Clarke’s book is alternately told in voices from Holiday’s times and their vernacular, as well as the author’s more academic style. There is a lot of information and background to digest and, at times, it is a difficult read. It’s very thorough and, therefore, very long. My only gripe about the book — and it’s a small one — is that most of the time, Clarke’s insight, background and analysis of Holliday’s music is by “sides,” rather than the LP or CD format we’ve become accustomed to, with the exception of her final record Lady In Satin. Because the author’s analysis is so good, I would have enjoyed an album-by-album breakdown, but understand that was not the medium of the day. The fact that Holiday’s oeuvre has been massively bootlegged and/or haphazardly compiled, or that the singer would often re-cut songs, doesn’t help. The song-by-song or session-by-session approach can be overwhelming and frustrating; it would eventually send me off to record and CD track listings and personnel. (That the CDs or LPs would then end up on the stereo gives me little in the end to complain about!)
Holiday’s story comes down to both her music and her ultimate date with destiny. They are inextricably linked in the Lady Day story; her art and her life cast a huge shadow over the history of music. I look forward to reading John Szwed’s new Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth but, for now, Wishing On The Moon stands as the definitive word on Lady Day.
Follow me on Twitter: @stevejreviews