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.