Two Biographies of Billie Holiday
Reviewed by Phillip D. Atteberry
These reviews are copyrighted and originally appeared in The Mississippi Rag, April 1996

Wishing on the Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday, by Donald Clarke, Viking Penguin, New York, 1994, $24.95 (paperback, $13.95).

Billie Holiday, by Stuart Nicholson, Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1995, $29.95.


Billie Holiday remains an important figure on the musical landscape because she forces us to reconsider some of artís most important and enduring questions. By what criteria do we (and should we) evaluate an artist? How, and to what extent, does life affect art? How, and to what extent, does art mirror life? These are not easy questions, but as music lovers, we become better listeners and wiser people by addressing them. That is why biographers continually return to Billie Holiday.

The newest Holiday biographies have one thing in common. They both attempt to rescue their subject from legend. Thatís no easy job, for Holidayís autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues (published three years before her death), has little to do with truth and much to do with legend. The 1972 movie, which turned out even less truthful, prompted lamentations from the jazz work. But Lady Day would have been gratified. In her last years, she seldom told the truth about her life. Instead, she tried to hide the ugliness that destroyed her. Lady Sings the Blues is full of ugliness, of course, but beneath the profanity and admissions of drug and sexual abuse lies a misleading propriety. Lady Day admits to doing bad things but seldom to having bad (or even mixed) motives, resulting in a book that misses altogether her real complexities--musical and otherwise.

Despite these challenges, Donald Clarke and Stuart Nicholson have written thorough and intelligent--but very different--biographies. Clarkeís Wishing on the Moon is sprawlingly panoramic; Nicholsonís Billie Holiday is tightly researched.

Clarkeís initial purpose was "to dispel the conventional image of [Billie Holiday] as a tragic black woman" and to demonstrate that "neither [Holidayís] life nor her works can be judged by the standards of European Puritanism [by which he means white, middle class values]."

Fortunately, this ponderous thesis is soon forgotten as a multitude of voices speaks to us from Clarkeís pages. Working in the oral history tradition, Clarke uses himself as a moderator to let others tell Billie Holidayís story. Interview transcripts constitute approximately one third of this text, including extensive citations from Holidayís accompanists (Bobby Tucker, Bobby Henderson, Carl Drinkard, Mal Waldron and Corky Hale); William Dufty, the collaborator on her autobiography; Earl Zaidens, her lawyer; John Hammond, one of her early promoters, and Milt Gabler, prominent Decca record producer. Not all sources are equally reliable. Some have axes to grind, others reputations to protect. Some have clear memories, other donít. Some adored Lady Day, others didnít. But taken as a whole, these people give us a thorough, complex picture of Billie Holiday--a woman whose life was about using and being used--by men, by drugs, by promoters, and ultimately by the music itself. The cumulative portrayal is neither sympathetic nor critical, but sobering. It takes a big step toward mapping a complex personality mosaic.

Stuart Nicholosonís Billie Holiday works from different sources and adopts a different tone. Whereas Clarkeís book is full of street language (because his sources are mainly from the street), Nicholsonís is more academic. Nicholsonís goals are also different. His purpose is to reinforce the idea that "the extreme contradictions" in Billie Holidayís character "gave rise to her genius" and to correct the "flaws and omissions" perpetrated by previous biographers.

He certainly does the latter. Nicholson is an indefatigable researcher and turns up details that no one else has been able to track down. For example, Dufty asserts in Lady Sings the Blues, that Holidayís father was shipped to France during World War I and suffered damaged lungs in a gas attack. Like others, Clarke dismisses the story as "unlikely." Nicholson, however, has dredged the army records to discover that Clarence Holiday was indeed sent to France on October 20, 1918 (twenty-two days before the Armistice), but was not injured.

One could provide dozens of such examples, making it appear that Nicholsonís book is clearly superior to Clarkeís. That would be misleading, however, for at times Clarkeís sources reveal details that elude Nicholson. For example, in discussing one of Holidayís signature tunes, "Strange Fruit," both Clarke and Nicholson explain how the tune came to be written, when and where Holiday introduced it, how it was received, when and were it was recorded, and how it became a fixture in Lady Dayís repertoire. But Clarkeís sources--which on this point include promoter Ernie Anderson, lyricist Arthur Herzog, and night club owner Barney Josephson--go a step further, explaining that Billie didnít like the song initially because she didnít understand it, having to be told what "pastoral" meant and what the "strange fruit" was. Such details, small though they may be, help humanize Billie Holiday in ways that conventional research often canít.

These few examples give one a feel for the extraordinarily tangled complexities of Billie Holidayís life and associations. But the big question is how did all this affect her music? Taken as a whole, Nicholsonís book is centered more squarely on the music than Clarkeís. Most of Clarkeís musical analyses come from the musicians, who arenít very helpful, perhaps because they are musicians rather than critics. But even Nicholsonís analyses, which are consistently thought provoking, are not always convincing. In discussing Holidayís singing, Nicholson says, "Billieís voice, so familiar, nevertheless remains a disembodied sound on recordings. . . It is not the voice for its own sake as much as the expressive power of the singer, using both tonal and visual nuance, that intrigues and commands our attention." That is a fancy of saying, "you had to be there," and faint praise.

Moreover, in summing up Holidayís Columbia recordings between 1935 and 1942, Nicholson says she maintained "an easy unself-consciousness that conveyed sentimental memories with. . . toughmindedness." Really? I wonder. Does Nicholson (and do all of us) use Billie Holidayís life as a text for interpreting her music? If Billie Holiday had led a less painful, controversial life, would we hear as much in her music? Some would argue that the question is irrelevant, that Billie Holiday sang the way she did because she lived the way she did. Perhaps. But that takes us back to the questions I posed at the beginning of this review. Should we have to know the life before appreciating the music? After all, we donít have to know anything about Lester Youngís alcoholism to appreciate his tenor playing.

I donít mean to question Billie Holidayís status as a major jazz figure, merely to point out how difficult it is to explain and define her achievement, which is partly musical and partly symbolic. The pain Billie Holiday brought to the American popular song caused a loss of innocence that can never fully be regained. That, like age and experience, is both satisfying and saddening. These two books, in different ways, help us understand that phenomenon.