Billie Holiday was one of the most celebrated singers of her era. However, beneath her flowing gowns and pleasant onstage persona, was a woman notorious for her destructive behaviour.
Before her death at the age of 44 years in 1959, Holiday recorded some of the biggest hits of the 1930s, including “My Man” and “A Fine Romance”. Yet, Holiday was equally as famous for her offstage antics that landed her name in the headlines of the press throughout her short life.
I have always been curious about Holiday, even since Diana Ross’ portrayal of her in Lady Sings the Blues. Particularly, I wanted to know how such a pivotal figure in musical history was swept into a downward spiral of drug abuse.
What I learned about in this BBC Four documentary about her life Holiday shocked me.
Instead of being the gracious, innocent singer I imagined in my mind, Holiday was an unapologetically bold and vivacious woman. She smoked, spoke her mind – often in a flurry of curse words – and fought with men twice her size.
Holiday was also reportedly sexually fluid, and had as many affairs with women as she did with men. Her life was anything but tragic. Rather, it was a tale of a woman who lived on her own terms.
It was an Etta James interview that encouraged me to watch this documentary. She spoke about performing songs to which she could truly relate, even if she didn’t write them herself.
Curiously, I began to wonder how younger artists, such as Rihanna, could apply this to their own careers. After all, Rihanna does not write her songs, give or take a comma on the Rated R album.
Despite her many personal troubles, however, Rihanna still brings nothing to the music. As I stated in my recent review of her career, she seems nonchalant about her own artistry.
Ironically, Rihanna’s personality and love life are very similar to that of Holiday. Additionally, she has a thin yet uniquely interesting voice that – if wielded with a greater degree of skill – could make her one of the standout vocalists of her generation.
Still, if there was ever singer who was most fittingly compared to Holiday, that person was Amy Winehouse. Indeed, it was as if Winehouse patterned her life and music after her predecessor as a very gifted interpreter of song.
I am so fascinated by the life and music of Holiday. Learning the details of her life has added new layers to my appreciation of her recordings. Just knowing that she used the word bitch as part of casual conversation makes everything seem so much better.