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Billie Holiday Biography

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This review just appeared in Kirkus Reviews. I will still read this, and judge for myself ...

WITH BILLIE

Publication Date: 04/05/2005

Publisher: Pantheon

Stage: Adult

ISBN: 0-375-40610-7

Price: $25.00

Author: Blackburn, Julia

Hitherto little-seen research about Billie Holiday is put to ill use. It may have seemed good as a proposal: the acclaimed English biographer and novelist Blackburn (The Leper's Companions, 1999, etc.) would look at jazz singer/icon Holiday through the eyes of previously unheard witnesses. But Blackburn's book is lazy, lurid, superficial and more than a bit of a cheat. True, the late Linda Kuehl's early-'70s interviews, which serve as the basis for this work, have never been mined extensively, but Donald Clarke made use of Kuehl's choicest stuff in his 1994 Wishing On the Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday. It quickly becomes clear why Kuehl's own editor had misgivings about her draft biography: the witnesses -- ranging from Holiday's childhood friends in Baltimore to musicians, pimps, dope dealers and the drug agents who saw her meteoric rise to fame and precipitous fall from grace -- focused on the most sordid aspects of Lady Day's saga. Precious little is provided about her music, save in the bright remembrances of the late pianist Jimmy Rowles, while many thrice-told tales appear about her alcoholism, drug addiction, violence, bisexuality and masochistic romantic relationships. Though the sales pitch here is that new voices will be heard, the reader seldom actually hears them. Most chapters are clumsy paraphrases, and what's verbatim is often unilluminating. Moreover, Blackburn is simply the wrong writer for the job. She betrays a nearly complete lack of knowledge of the cultures and vernaculars of jazz and drugs -- a failure that dooms a project like this one from the get-go. She also pads her heavily footnoted text -- which is riddled with gaping holes due to the shortfalls of Kuehl's research -- with flatly written and hardly incisive chapters, drawn entirely from secondary sources, about figures as important to Holiday's life as saxophonist Lester Young and as peripheral as actress Tallulah Bankhead. It isn't certain that the world needs another book about Billie Holiday. But it's definitely not this one.

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Donald Clarke is a very good friend of mine and I lived through many of the "trials" he had while working on his book. I'm saying this as a disclaimer, but I really like his book.

I can imagine something better but don't expect to see it.

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  • Sounds like a book worth skipping. Who wrote the review?

    Stein and Day, my original publisher for "Bessie," contracted Linda Kuehl to do the Billie book shortly after I signed with them. Sol Stein called and asked me if I would mind helping Linda get started on her research, show her my method, etc.

    Out of that grew a friendship. Linda really wanted this to be the definitive Billie biography, and she threw herself into the research with enviable zeal and energy. She made trips to the West Coast, Baltimore, and any place where she might obtain fresh information. Several times a week, she called to tell me of some extraordinary interview or something she had come across. There were times when she actually placed herself in danger, but drug-infested Baltimore or LA neighborhoods never slowed her down. One of her remarkable finds was a small plastic disc from one of those coin-operated recording booths one found on 42nd Street in those days. On it was Billie's voice, singing "Come All Ye Faithful" to herself. She was obviously high and I don't think I have ever heard anything quite that sad--even from Billie.

    Eventually, as Linda dug deeper, it took her to the business aspect of Billie's career. I think we all know that Billie, like so many other artists, was financially short-changed (to put it politely), but even with that knowledge, Linda was shocked and dismayed to discover the extent to which Billie had been ripped off. It also surprised her to find that greatly admired movers and shakers in the jazz business were as callous and greedy as anyone else. But Linda kept digging, and it got to the point where she was receiving gentle threats. She started recording her telephone conversations (I recall Lenny Bruce doing the same thing) and she played one for me--it was a Damon Runyon-type of voice strongly urging her to "stick to the music and leave the business side alone."

    I had seen some pieces written by Linda before she took on this project, and she was a decent writer, but the Billie Holiday experience was beginning to unravel her. Her calls to me were now often in whispers, and even when she came to my apartment, she spoke as if someone might be eavesdropping.

    When Peter Pullman told me that he need a writer to annotate a Holiday Verve reissue, I unhesitatingly recommended Linda. The notes, I thought, would be terrific and full of new material. Imagine my surprise when they turned out to be quite pedestrian--bordering on boring. Linda was clearly having a hard time and she eventually told me as much--writing had become a torturous task, she said, asking me to look over a finished chapter. Sad to say, it was also a torturous read, and I told her so, making some suggestions.

    By this time, Linda had switched publishers. I had expressed my dissatisfaction with Stein & Day and she decided to buy back her contract and go with a better house--which she managed to do.

    I don't know how much the writer of the Kirkus piece knows about Linda's research, but the "shortfalls" he mentions are probably unfair. Linda worked very hard and she found things that had escaped the rest of us, but she had not completed her research when she died, allegedly at her own hand.

    I, too, like the Donald Clarke book and agree that it is not the last word. When Linda's sister called me to for advice on what to do with the research material, I recommended that she put it away and not give anyone access until the publisher (Harper & Row, I think) made a decision. They had, after all, paid for the research. A couple or more years later, I received a call from Toby Byron, who was looking for Billie material. I will always regret steering him to Linda's sister. I don't know how much he paid for it, but he ended up with all of it--and, based on subsequent personal experience with Byron, I wouldn't be surprised if Linda's sister is still waiting for payment.

    Finally, when Linda started the project, her knowledge of jazz was severely limited, but her love for it was genuine and I thought that love, combined with her determination to write a well-researched biography would yield a desirable result. Linda was amassing a lot of material, but she had yet to get a grip on the environment that produced jazz and Billie. I am sure her writing reflected that shortcoming--what little I saw, did--so if Julia Blackburn has limited insight, I can imagine how she must have compounded the gaps left by Linda.

    The people who took financial advantage of Billie may not have physically pushed Linda off that hotel window ledge in Washington, D.C., but they surely pulled an emotional trigger.

    I still miss Linda and hate to see her work abused by incompetent writers.

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Thanks for that story!

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Yeah, for real. The tales of the phone calls are reminiscent of what Gigi Gryce claimed, but apparently that can't be proven.

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Many thanks for reminiscing, Christern! Even if it's a very sad story!

I'll stick to the Donald Clark book. Thought it was one of the best biographies in the jazz field.

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I met Donald once and really enjoy his book.

So sorry to read the story about Linda, thanks for sharing Chris.

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This is late entry, but that was a very interesting story. Thanks for sharing it Chris. I'm sure you have many more that we would sincerely be interested in hearing. ^_^

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From today's IHT:

Biography covers range of a vocalist

By Mike Zwerin Bloomberg News

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 15, 2005

PARIS 'With Billie," Julia Blackburn's new book about Billie Holiday's oft-told, many-leveled, all-American, usually sensationalized story of racism, poverty, drugs, sex and jazz, repeatedly provokes the reader to reflect: "Sounds about right; that's the way it probably was."

When Blackburn first heard a Holiday recording at 14, it seemed to her that "just singing filled her with such a wild joy that she was aware of nothing else for as long as the song lasted." She noticed that the singer "didn't seem to care about the beat woven around her by the other musicians. She kept pulling it and stretching it until I thought she had lost it entirely. But just when it seemed too late, she was back again." Blackburn never loses that nutshell of delighted discovery.

In the 1970s, a writer named Linda Kuehl recorded interviews with more than 150 people who knew Holiday - family, friends, business associates and musicians, as well as miscellaneous felons and freeloaders who crossed her path. Kuehl had trouble with the writing, though, and there were problems with publishers. She committed suicide in 1979 by jumping out of a hotel room in Washington, where she had gone to hear Count Basie, a sadly apt coda to the story she was trying to tell.

Blackburn gained access to Kuehl's archive in the 1990s. There were shoeboxes full of tapes and a long paper trail, including police files, transcripts of court cases, royalty statements, shopping lists, hospital records, private letters, muddled transcripts and fragments of unfinished chapters.

Blackburn decided to let the interviewees tell their own stories so that "it would not matter if the stories overlapped or didn't fit together, or even if sometimes they seem to be talking about a completely different woman." Despite some overzealous footnoting, her refreshingly non-judgmental book is as much a valuable social study as a well-written biography.

Holiday's experiences as a prostitute and a drug addict are neither hidden nor exploited. They are part of the raw material that produced one of the most expressive voices of the 20th century. (She was born in 1915.) Listening to her recordings over and over, they only get better.

Her interpretations of such songs as "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," "Good Morning Heartache," "My Man," "God Bless the Child," "Trav'lin' All Alone" and "Gloomy Sunday" add deeper emotional resonance to them. Through a kind of existential alchemy, when she sings about how she'll never smile again, that she's going to lock her heart and throw away the key ("I'm tired of all those tricks you played on me"), it becomes one big tearful laugh at life. So in this case more than usual, knowing about the life is essential to an appreciation of the genius.

Among the characters in her life are Freddie Green the guitar player, Freddie Green the pimp, John Levy the bass player, and John Levy the pimp - four different men. There are a lot of pimps, drug dealers and slimy managers; Holiday married some of them. She had a strong streak of masochism.

Her fellow musicians adored her, weaknesses and all. The Mozartian saxophonist Lester Young was her best friend and musical alter ego. She and the actress Tallulah Bankhead were friends, and maybe lovers. She was friendly with the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, who described her as "glittering, somber and solitary, although of course never alone, never. Stately, sinister and absolutely determined."

Holiday's peers considered her an instrumentalist, one of the cats as it were, and their accompaniment became part of her sound. From 1935 to her death in 1959, her rosters featured musicians such as Teddy Wilson, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Claude Thornhill, Phil Woods and J.J. Johnson. She was not the only singer to invent an instrument with her voice - Frank Sinatra also comes to mind - though she is arguably the archetype.

In 1939, Abel Meeropol, a young Jewish schoolteacher who later changed his name to Lewis Allen, brought her his protest song "Strange Fruit." Reading the line, "Pastoral scene of the gallant South," she asked him: "What does 'pastoral' mean?" She came to suspect that having a hit with a song containing such lines as "Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze" was one reason why she was so relentlessly hounded by federal law enforcement bureaus. She was busted one last time for trying to get high on her hospital deathbed.

Holiday's friend and assistant Alice Vrbsky says that she learned a lot about honesty from her: "She'd be friendly with someone if she liked them, no matter who they were, and she wouldn't be friendly with someone just because he was a big shot." According to her ex-pianist Carl Drinkard, Holiday was "like a little girl needing guidance. She had a morbid fear of going to jail, and she could not stand pain."

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How about the Lestorian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? :wacko:

Sad story, Chris, but thanks so much for sharing it.

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i think that one of the bh biographies uses some of Linda Kuehl's research.

if you put together all the biographies about her, you get a pretty good overview of her life.

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i think that one of the bh biographies uses some of Linda Kuehl's research.

if you put together all the biographies about her, you get a pretty good overview of her life.

Yes, Donald Clarke's WISHING ON THE MOON, which I think is the best of the bunch. I've also approached Coltrane in the same composite manner that you suggest; even Porter's book doesn't cover everything as much as I'd like (I'm thinking in this instance of the '61 VV recordings and the entire year of 1965).

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Blackburn's new bio (which I have yet to read) probably uses more of Linda's research than Clarke's, but I am told (by knowledgeable friends (who have read it) that it contains a lot of interesting material from Linda's interviews but that the problem is Blackburn's unfamiliarity with the subject. She apparently makes many mistaken assumptions.

That said, I have to point out that Linda Kuehl herself was dealing with a similar problem. Other than liking it immensely, she did not know much about jazz when she started the project, but she learned as much as one can in that relatively short period of time.

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Arthur Kempton has a review of this in the new NY Review of Books that just showed up in my mailbox.

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Thanks for the link, David. It looks as if Blackburn did not deal with Billie's Catholicism. Bill Dufty told me that she had tremendous inner conflict because of that.

Apropos Bill Dufty, I spent a lot of time with him when he was married to Gloria Swanson, and we often spoke about Billie. He told me that Doubleday dropped at least a third of the original manuscript. They were afraid of lawsuits, so they eliminated a wonderful story about the time Billie served Charles Laughton as a guide to Harlem, another one, even more interesting, was about the time Hazel Scott talked Billie into appearing with her at FDR's White House--great stories. They were also afraid of Billie's intimate relationship with Tallulah Bankhead (I asked Tallulah about that, BTW, and she confirmed it).

Bill also told me that the Doubleday editor assumed that Lou Levy was Jewish and that he would, therefore, sue (I know, I know, but that's what he told me).

How sad it is that Linda's diligent research ended up in the hands of a writer who, essentially, seems to be clueless when it comes to the subject at hand. I can kick myself for having steered Toby Byron to this material, but--spilled milk, and all that...

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I forwarded this thread to (my good friend) Donald Clarke and hope he responds. Somewhere I have pages and pages from him ranting about "the archives" and dealing with "thieves".

Come on DC, unload.

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Chris, did Bill Dufty still have a copy of the original manuscript--and if so, does it still exist? I noticed the comments about that near the end of Kempton's review; it would be very interesting today to read a restored version that included material such as that to which you alluded.

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Chris, did Bill Dufty still have a copy of the original manuscript--and if so, does it still exist?  I noticed the comments about that near the end of Kempton's review; it would be very interesting today to read a restored version that included material such as that to which you alluded.

Yes, he did have a copy, because he let me read the stories I mentioned. He had also written a play that included some of these incident. I think I have a copy of that manuscript in my catch-all closet. Bear in mind that Bill used his imagination a lot--for example, the well-known sentence that opens "Lady Sings the Blues" was his, not Billie's.

Does the manuscript still exist? Who knows? Bill's first wife, the dreadful Maylie Dufty is long gone and so, of course, is Gloria Swanson. Bill was living in Florida when he died.

Chuck, I'd love to hear what Donald has to say about Toby.

Edited by Christiern

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if there's enough raw info, I'd like to read this book - interesting parallels with Lenny Bruce, vis a ve police harassment - Kempton's a bright guy but there's mistakes in his book on gospel -

Edited by AllenLowe

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Kempton's a bright guy but there's  mistakes in his book on gospel -

Hey Allen, check out my review of the earlier Kempton book. ;)

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