WISHING ON THE MOON: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday by Donald Clarke

WISHING ON THE MOON: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A very much less than definitive biography of one of our greatest jazz performers. Clarke (editor, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music) relies heavily on interviews conducted in 1970--73 by Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who apparently hoped to write a biography of Holiday (she died before she could complete her work). Holiday's (1915--59) life story is well known, and Clarke does an adequate job of tracing her rise and fall, from her illegitimate birth in Baltimore and her reform-school years through her stormy reunion with her natural mother, who may also have served as her part-time pimp. Holiday showed a natural talent for singing and was soon working the after-hours clubs. By the mid-'30s, she was recording with legendary pianist Teddy Wilson and touting with Count Basic and Artie Shaw. Her greatest years were few, however, due to her proclivity for abusive relationships (with a series of male managers who also served as lovers, drug dealers, and ""financial managers"") and her growing dependence on heroin. Clarke traces her decline through the '50s, sparing no details of her increasingly erratic behavior. While he obviously idolizes Holiday, Clarke is fairly evenhanded in his descriptions of the musicians and lovers who were part of her life, although his dislike for famed producer John Hammond (whom he contemptuously calls ""one of the great white gods"" of the music industry) is evident. Clarke's analysis of Holiday's recordings are filled with clichÉs (""The music in Heaven is like this"") and such ham-fisted assertions as his suggestion that Holiday achieved the status of a Christian icon, ""an image of something sacred...because she was granted Grace."" Surely, the greatest voice in jazz deserves an equally compelling biography; for now, her own Lady Sings the Blues, although deeply flawed in its factual account, remains the best introduction to her life and work.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0786112107
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: Viking