Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday with William Dufty
(Harlem Moon, 2006, 231 pages)
I don’t remember where I first read about Billie Holiday’s autobiography, but I know that as soon as I did I put in a MOBIUS request because I really wanted to read it. I was familiar with Holiday’s music but I’ve never really sat down and listened to it – I certainly plan on remedying that now. Lady Sings the Blues is an autobiography Billie wrote with William Dufty – essentially he interviewed her and transcribed her responses. You get a very clear sense of Billie’s voice when you read through this book. As is often the case with autobiographies, you get a sense that Billie wants to set the record straight on her life, especially when she talks about her struggle with drugs and the effort she put into becoming the singer she was.
Billie had a rough life. There’s no question about that. Born to parents who were still children themselves (13 and 15) she started out with the odds stacked against her. Her home life wasn’t ideal – she lived in Baltimore with her abusive aunt, grandparents, and cousins while her mom went off to New York in an attempt to bring in more money. Eventually she and her mother made it to New York together (after Billie suffered a near-rape which she was then incarcerated for). It was here that Billie’s talent was first recognized – she went in to find a job dancing (which wasn’t a talent she possessed), but when pressed to sing she was hired immediately.
This book takes you through the drastic ups and downs of Billie’s life. You see how her career builds, yet she is always struggling to hold onto her money or to find a man she can trust. While we aren’t given too many details of the role drugs played in her life, Billie gives considerable space in the book to the effort that went into fighting the law over her drug habits. She talks a lot about trying to beat the habit, but how the government always had its eye on her.
This was an interesting read that has me wanting to read a biography or two about her life to get a more well-rounded picture of who she really was. This was a great way of being introduced to the singer and it was really interesting to read about her encounters with various celebrities and other bands and performers of her time (Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway…). Can’t wait to find out more about her…