Magazine article The Spectator

Fine and Mellow

Magazine article The Spectator

Fine and Mellow

Article excerpt

Fine and mellow WITH BILLIE by Julia Blackburn Cape, £17.99, pp. 354, ISBN 0224075896 £15.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

Having obsessively admired Billie Holiday's singing for 50 years or so, having seen her perform whenever possible, having listened to her recordings again and again, and having read hundreds of thousands of words about her, I received Julia Blackburn's With Billie in a mood of blasé scepticism. It is a pleasure to report that this is a really marvellous book, the most uninhibitedly intimate portrayal ever of the short, hard life and overall musical triumph of Lady Day.

Though not as orderly as Stuart Nicholson's 1995 biography, for example, With Billie more vividly reflects the chaos that Billie Holiday was born into and only rarely escaped from. Blackburn had the incalculable advantage of access to 150 interviews with all sorts of people, especially jazz musicians, already transcribed by Linda Kuchl, who had hoped to write a coherent biography, found the task too complex, despaired, and killed herself. Blackburn, a sympathetic yet unflinchingly candid fan of Billie Holiday's, had the artistically inspired and labour-saving notion of presenting most of Kuchl's primary-source material raw, with a minimum of editorial intervention, allowing the heterogeneous quotations to represent the rich untidiness of life itself.

Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia in 1915, moved to Baltimore as an infant and to New York as an adolescent, which was her home until she died there in 1959, in a hospital bed, under arrest for possession of drugs.

Her childhood was appalling. She was haphazardly brought up fatherless in a slum in East Baltimore. For truancy at the age of nine, she was committed for one year to the House of Good Shepherd for Colored Girls. It was a dreary, impoverished institution run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, who believed in corporal punishment but seemed incapable of preventing bullying and lesbianism among their charges. A year after her release, at the age of 11, she was raped. At 12 she was 'turning tricks', preparing her for life in and around the brothels of Harlem. Her story might have ended then, in squalid obscurity, but for her extraordinary physical and mental resilience - and music. Fortunately, she began singing very early; and, very early, musicians recognised her original talent.

As a young woman, her exuberant vitality was extremely attractive. Men loved her, and she loved them, particularly if they dominated her, exploited her, abused her, even beat her up. …

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