• Kirkus Best Books of 2015 selection for Biography •
Published in celebration of Holiday’s centenary, the first biography to focus on the singer’s extraordinary musical talent
When Billie Holiday stepped into Columbia’s studios in November 1933, it marked the beginning of what is arguably the most remarkable and influential career in twentieth-century popular music. Her voice weathered countless shifts in public taste, and new reincarnations of her continue to arrive, most recently in the form of singers like Amy Winehouse and Adele.
Most of the writing on Holiday has focused on the tragic details of her life—her prostitution at the age of fourteen, her heroin addiction and alcoholism, her series of abusive relationships—or tried to correct the many fabrications of her autobiography. But now, Billie Holiday stays close to the music, to her performance style, and to the self she created and put into print, on record and on stage.
Drawing on a vast amount of new material that has surfaced in the last decade, critically acclaimed jazz writer John Szwed considers how her life inflected her art, her influences, her uncanny voice and rhythmic genius, a number of her signature songs, and her legacy.
From the Hardcover edition.
Unsatisfied with labeling Holiday "the greatest jazz singer of all time," veteran jazz biographer Szwed (Alan Lomax) attempts to deconstruct the entertainer and her vocal magic by puncturing her celebrated public image and her legendary performances. First, Szwed holds Holiday's 1956 provocative memoir, Lady Sings the Blues, to a harsh analytical light. He debunks claims that it trashed jazz and its artists and was written to support Holiday's drug habit, while disclosing the reality that the singer was broke and in tax trouble. He reveals some little-known facts, including that Holiday wanted children desperately and even tried to adopt a baby in Boston but was turned down because of her drug use. He also terms Lady Day's voice as "indelibly odd, and so easy to recognize but difficult to describe," and writes the performer had two different selves: rough, profane, caustic offstage, but witty, kind, and charming onstage. The book really takes off when Szwed gets into Holiday's peerless styling as an improviser and interpreter of torch songs and blues, including the classics "God Bless' the Child," "Don't Explain," and "My Man." Szwed provides an alternative to the gossip and scandal usually associated with Holiday with this highly entertaining, essential take on an truly American original.