'With Billie': A Jazz Great, As Others Saw Her

Countless books have been published on the life of Billie Holliday. British writer Julia Blackburn tries a different tack — in her book With Billie, she collects a series of interviews of some of those who knew the great jazz singer personally.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

(Soundbite of "Swing, Brother, Swing")

CHIDEYA: Here's Billie Holiday from 1933. The song: "Swing, Brother, Swing."

(Soundbite of "Swing, Brother, Swing")

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) His rhythm captivates me. Hot rhythm stimulates me. Can't help but swing it, boy. Swing it, brother, swing.

CHIDEYA: There are countless views, many contradictory, about who Billie Holiday was.

Unidentified Woman #1: People thought she was something peculiar.

Unidentified Woman #2: She had her own way about doing things. She had to fight, and she wasn't gonna let nobody stop her.

Unidentified Woman #3: She got off track.

Unidentified Woman #4: She was a very intelligent woman.

Unidentified Woman #5: If she couldn't make a dollar standing on her own two feet, she didn't want it.

Unidentified Man #1: She did a little prostitution up here in Harlem.

Unidentified Man #2: Her skin was like satin.

Unidentified Woman #6: She was so elegant. It was a gas to watch her walk up to the microphone.

Unidentified Man #3: And there were people who'd say, `Why don't you catch that Billie Holiday? She's so high she can't sing.'

Unidentified Woman #7: I didn't realize that she was ill as she was.

(Soundbite of "Swing, Brother, Swing")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) Come on, swing me, Count. Swing it, brother, swing.

CHIDEYA: Those are snippets of interviews with Billie's friends and fellow musicians, read by actors from the BBC Radio. Biographer Julia Blackburn organized, edited and wrote, based on a series of interviews with people who knew Billie Holiday personally. Her book is called "With Billie."

Julia Blackburn joins me now from the studios of the BBC in London. Welcome.

Ms. JULIA BLACKBURN (Author, "With Billie"): Thank you. Hello.

CHIDEYA: Julia, there's Billie Holiday's story, and then there's the story of how you gathered the information for her biography. So let's start there. Who was Linda Kuehl?

Ms. BLACKBURN: I don't know that much about her, but what I know is that she was a young American woman who was obviously tremendously fond of jazz and jazz music, and particularly of Billie's music, and she decided to make a book about Billie Holiday at a time when there weren't--there was nothing apart from "The Lady Sings the Blues," ghostwritten book, and so she set about doing interviews of people, and not just well-knowns, not just the Count Basies and well-known people. She also went to the streets of Baltimore and met people like Skinny "Rim" Davenport, who'd been a pimp in the '20s, and Freddie Green, and friends from all sorts of aspects of Billie's life, and she interviewed them, tape-recorded the interviews, transcribed the tapes, and worked on the book, more or less, for 10 years. And then tragically she died. She took her own life in 1979. And the collection of both interviews and other papers that she'd made sat around until it was taken--it was acquired by a private collector in the 1990s.

CHIDEYA: So did you have any trepidations about using material from another writer or reporter?

Ms. BLACKBURN: It's such an interesting collection. It's like sort of people's musings in a journal. There are such vivid things that it was a way of meeting people who otherwise I never could have met for the practical reason of their mortality.

CHIDEYA: So let me move on to Billie's life. A lot of people don't know much about her childhood. I personally grew up in Baltimore and it was interesting reading about the streets that she grew up on, streets that I saw from a completely different era.

Ms. BLACKBURN: Oh, yes.

CHIDEYA: Tell us about her childhood, about whether or not she actually engaged in prostitution, all of those questions about her early life.

Ms. BLACKBURN: She was--Billie was, at that time, known as Eleanora or Eleanor, was brought up in various households and was passed from one family to the next and didn't see much of her mother, certainly didn't see anything much of her father. And by the time she was nine, she was in a reform school and was sent to the House of Good Shepherd for Colored Girls in Baltimore for a year, which was quite a dour place, I think. And then when she came out, she, by the age of 11, was pretty much on her own, dealing with her own life and managing her own life, and, indeed, she gravitated towards the brothels, towards the speakeasies, and already, as an 11-year-old, a 12-year-old, she had discovered her voice and the sort of bubble that she got into when she sang.

(Soundbite of song "What a Little Moonlight Can Do")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) Ooh, ooh, ooh, what a little moonlight can do. Ooh, ooh, ooh, what a little moonlight can do to you.

Ms. BLACKBURN: She had singing on her mind, said Pony Kay, and she sang like it hurt her to sing, like it did her good. So then she was started, she'd found her voice, which meant that she could begin to sell her voice rather than anything else that she might need to sell. And with that gift, she moved to New York and to Harlem at the age of 14.

Unidentified Woman #8: (As Pony Kay) Billie wasn't doing anything unusual. She just did like all the rest of them.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned her friend Pony. Let's hear a little snippet of Pony describing what Billie Holiday was like as a young girl.

Unidentified Woman #8: (As Pony Kay) She wasn't making money. She was getting a meal, less than a meal, getting a trick or two. She wanted to be around where the happenings was. Hustling men liked her. They would come around and take her for nights out. All the men were keen to have Billie sing. She used to sing in nightclubs and maybe make 2, $3 a night.

(Soundbite of song "What a Little Moonlight Can Do")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) You can't resist him at all. You said when you have kissed him, it's ooh, ooh, what a little moonlight can do.

Ms. BLACKBURN: She was drawn to men who had the sort of glamorous side of life on their side, but every so often one of these looming, terrifying figures would emerge who would say--who would become a manager or a manager-husband and they were a completely different kettle of fishes and they were--you know, they just simply took over her earnings because, obviously, she was a very valuable commodity, if you like to see it like that. She earned a lot of money. And she wasn't particularly interested in money herself, and there were those who were, and they tended to step in.

(Soundbite of song "You're My Thrill")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) You're my thrill. You do something to me.

Unidentified Man #4: There were times when she let her guard down and she was like a little girl.

CHIDEYA: What about one of her failed romances, or a romance that didn't go as far as it might have--Bobby Henderson? What was he like?

Ms. BLACKBURN: From everything that I've read about him, he sounds so--such a--I don't know, a good man. You have people--you meet people where you can tell that no matter what else, that you can tell that they're good. He was in love with Billie. He--they got on musically and they got on also intellectually but he said that he could never--once she got famous, once she started making money, he couldn't stay on in there, because he'd have been washed away by the kind of people who were crowding around her and who were going to, you know, take her from him, and so he--they were together for a couple of years. And then he disappeared out of her life. But always, when he was interviewed later, always had this enormous tenderness about her, and also a very nice assessment of her character and her nature.

Unidentified Man #5: (As Bobby Henderson) She was very graceful in anything she did, the way she handled a fork. You know, we'd be in a restaurant and we'd be eating, and somebody would say, `Hey, Bobby, what's the matter with you?' And I'd say, `Nothing.' But deep in my mind I'm looking at her and saying, `You do things in a beautiful way.'

(Soundbite of song "You're My Thrill")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) When I look at you, I can't keep still. You're my thrill.

CHIDEYA: Let's move on to another personal allegation, or a personal issue, drug abuse. How accurate is that facet of her life?

Ms. BLACKBURN: I think, for me, one of the things that shocked me and led me to want to write a book about Billie Holiday was because every time you pick up a CD or a record or a biography, before they've even begun anything else about her, there was a mention of this drug element in her life. And I think it has to be remembered that when the book about her life, "Lady Sings the Blues," which has never been out of print since it was published in 1956, ghostwritten autobiography--when that was being prepared, very hurriedly, and with very little help from Billie, it was realized by the publishers that drugs would be what they called--and it's sort of in one of these letters that I read--drugs would be the gimmick that would sell the book, and so that--she became the kind of chosen. She was selected as a figure to represent the collapse caused by drugs.

(Soundbite of song "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) If I should take the notion to jump into the ocean, ain't nobody's business if I do.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a request to sing a song. It was written especially for me. It's titled "Strange Fruit."

Unidentified Woman #9: Oh!

(Soundbite of piano music, applause)

CHIDEYA: The song "Strange Fruit" is now a monument to the horrors of Jim Crow, but some say that Billie Holiday didn't sing that song without paying a price in her career. What...

Ms. BLACKBURN: Yes.

CHIDEYA: ...good and bad things did that song's impact do for Billie Holiday?

Ms. BLACKBURN: It had initially a huge political impact, that copies of the song were sent to all members of Congress. It was seen as the first civil rights song. And it was really voicing something that had been waiting to be voiced, if you like. She wasn't a one to speak politically. She wasn't somebody who could stand up and, say, like a Paul Robeson, make a whole sort of statement, but she could sing this song, and apparently, according to letters from--that I read of William Dufty, the ghostwriting journalist who wrote "The Lady Sings the Blues," the FBI and other peoples actually said if she stopped singing this song they would give her an easier ride. She persisted in singing it.

She was arrested in 1947 and sent to prison on a complicated and rather jumped-up drugs charge. When she came out, she went on singing the song, singing "Strange Fruit," and over and over again, wherever she went, the FBI or different members of the sort of law enforcement, would trail her, would follow her, and over and over again, apparently, she was told if she stopped singing it, she'd be let off. She persisted because of her own belief in political rights and her own--you know, the right of making her statement. And it basically ruined her career inasmuch that it--they took away her cabaret card, her right to sing in New York, anywhere with a liquor license, because--basically, because of singing that song. And although she applied over and over again to get the cabaret card reinstated, it never was.

(Soundbite of "Strange Fruit")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck, for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, for the sun to rot, for the tree to drop. Here is a strange and bitter crop.

CHIDEYA: Final question for you, Julia.

Ms. BLACKBURN: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: Billie Holiday is seen variously as a musical genius, a drug addict, a prostitute, a victim, a fighter, a survivor. Who is she to you?

Ms. BLACKBURN: All those terms. I mean, she is, over and above and beyond anything, a singer of such quality who sang--I would put her there side by side with Louis Armstrong, with Lester Young. She was a musician, a woman who, I think, had a courage and an integrity and a determination. It's remarkable not that she died so young but that she survived so long and with such a strength that kept with her to the end. And I think she's a marvel.

CHIDEYA: Julia Blackburn is the author of the Billie Holiday biography "With Billie." Thank you for joining us.

Ms. BLACKBURN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of "Sunny Side of the Street")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) Grab your coat and get your hat. Leave your worry on the doorstep. Just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street.

CHIDEYA: That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of "Sunny Side of the Street")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) Life can be so sweet on the sunny side of the street. I used to walk in the shade with those blues on parade, but now I'm not afraid. This rover crossed over. If I never have a cent, I'll be rich as Rockefeller. Gonna stamp my feet, on the...

CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. Ed Gordon will be back tomorrow. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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