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BILLIE HOLIDAY by Stuart Nicholson



Pub Date: Sept. 29th, 1995
Publisher: Northeastern Univ.

Less-than-satisfying biography of a well-beloved jazz singer, despite some interesting musical analysis. Nicholson (Ella Fitzgerald, 1994) has uncovered birth certificates, court documents, and newspaper advertisements to correct long-standing mix-ups in Holiday's life story. His sober approach is some relief after the overheated prose of many Holiday bios (most notably, Donald Clarke's 1994 tome), but surprisingly, Nicholson drops the bali so often that those who do not already know Holiday's life story will be lost. Holiday was born out of wedlock, neglected by her mother, and raped by a neighborhood boy at the age of 11. By her late teens, she was in New York City, where she quickly established herself as a singing star, ""discovered"" by the famous jazz producer John Hammond, who arranged for her first recording sessions. An engagement at New York's hip Cafe Society club in the late '30s established her among a broader audience; there she performed ""Strange Fruit,"" a song that bravely addressed racial hatred. By the '40s, Holiday was recording in a more pop-oriented vein, often accompanied by lush strings. Her career began to unravel with her deepening dependency on abusive men and her addiction to heroin. By the early '50s, her voice was becoming unreliable, and her health began to fail; she died in 1959. Nicholson deals only peripherally with the personal life of Holiday, often only briefly mentioning key figures. As in his book on Fitzgerald, he tends to focus on long lists of performance and recording dates, losing sight of the figure behind the facts. His discussion of the musical side of Holiday's achievement is the book's most valuable contribution, offering interesting insights into how pop singers mold their image before an adoring public. This Lady is still waiting for her Day in the biographical sun.