Last night on Tavis Smiley's PBS TV show, a singer named Cassandra Wilson was talking about her new album in which she 'interpreted' some of the songs familiarized by the legendary Billie Holiday. She noted that Billie had been born on April 7th, 1915 in Baltimore Md., a hundred years ago tis week. And most notable, yesterday's New York Times did a page-long article entitled "Moving Beyond A Singer's Tragedy." Writer Ben Ratliff made the point that much new information had surfaced in recent years pointing to the fact that the Federal Bureau of Narcotics of her day, led by an unscrupulous ambitious politician, had deliberately targeted her for harsh action to make a splashy arrest for itself. He notes that vocally Billie had picked up much of her phrasing from Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith records first heard when she was ten and working in a whorehouse as a maid. He then goes on to illustrate her influence on the work of innumerable singers to follow: Abbey Lincoln, Bob Dylan, Shirley Caesar James Brown, Betty Carter, Sly Stone, etc. Billie died in June 1959 at 44 in Roosevelt Hospital of 'pneumonia', and I once recounted the fact that I heard she had a few hundred dollar bills strapped to her inner thigh, the total extent of her finances at the time.
Some years ago here on Huffington I told how I met her in July 1959 backstage at the Newport Jazz Festival, for which I was the publicist. We sat around and she told me stories, then suggested I get a copy of her 'biography' which she had written with Biil Dufty (who was living with Gloria Swanson at the time and had previously written a book about the dangers of sugar.) I met with Billie's long-time agent, the tough-as-nails Joe Glaser, and somehow optioned for $5,000. for 18 months the film rights to the book, then spent 12 long horrifying years (at $5,000. annually a clip) trying io get the movie made. (Diana Ross' manager Berry Gordy once said to me, "Who the hell wants to see a movie about a blacl junkie singer?" Fortunately, I was able to prove him wrong. This week all over the country there will be concerts and lectures devoted to Lady Day....including a concert at the Apollo in Harlem to be followed by the unveiling of a plaque to her under the marquee. The film of her life which I was so fortunate to produce, LADY SINGS THE BLUES, starring Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor, will also be playing throughout the nation.
The New York Times writer calls this the post-tragic phase in the history of the perception of Billie Holiday. It's not enough to think of her as a victim, or even a collection of vocal mannerisms. He says the closer you look the less she seems stuck in her time. She sang with Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman's bands in the '30s, and recorded "Strange Fruit" in 1959, a strange and piercing meditation on American racism. As my film shows, in 1947 she was convicted on drug charges and spent a year in the Lexington prison, losing her cabaret card, which meant she couldn't perform in any place in New York which sold alcohol. My film ended with the famous, triumphant Carnegie Hall concert which sold out and went a long way to rehabilitating her reputation. An interesting side note is that in subsequent years singer Abbey Lincoln led the way to help restore her artistic reputation and get her full, complex respect. In 1968 I had produced a film called "For Love of Ivy," which starred Sidney Poitier and Abbey Lincoln (with Carroll O'Connor and Beau Bridges in the cast.) It was the first major studio film (CBS Features) to ever star two black leads; Poitier wrote the original story and I bought it twenty minutes after reading it. Upon its completion, I offered Abbey the lead in my next film, the selfsame Billie Holiday story. Abbey sadly told me that her husband at the time, drummer Max Roach, was violently against her doing anoiher film and she could not proceed, eventually opening the way for me to fortuitously garner the lead singer of The Supremes to make her dramatic debut....which led to five Oscar nominations and a huge international boxoffice success.
The Times reporter wrote yesterday that Holiday was "a wicked maker of sound." Over the years, I had collected many of the 300 songs which she recorded in her lifetime. And fully agree with that assessment. But I want to end on a note about one astonishing accomplishment which best illustrates the genius of Billie Holiday....and a CD version of it is available to all my Huffington readers. On June 8th of last year, Broadway history was written when at the 68th Annual Tony Awards the host of the show, Hugh Jackman, announced the winner of the Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Play. It was Audra McDonald in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," her sixth Tony.This was a play-with-music written by a fellow named Lanie Robertson, and in it he captured far better even than we did in our film the essence of the real Billie Holiday. The setting was midnight of a night in March, 1959, in a small bar in Philadelphia. It so happens that I had once met Audra McDonald when Ginny Mancini and I attended her concert at UCLA's Royce Hall and we went backstage to greet her. I remember saying to Ms. Mancini that if I ever did another Billie Holiday story, here was the perfect lead. Truer words were never spoken. The Tony-winning play was inspired by a real-life incident in which the once-reigning Billie, strung-out and almost broke, was reduced to singing in a seedy North Philadelphia joint to handful of her most devoted fans. In a brave, rueful and moving performance just four months before her death, it's apparent that - through it all - Billie never thought of herself as a 'victim,' never felt sorry for herself. The theatre critic of the New York Times raved about it thusly: "Although Ms. McDonald has her own natural authority onstage, in this show she submerges her identity in Hoiday's as loving tribute to an artist whose difficult career exacted a painful price. Ms. McDonald moves between moods with a jittery sharpness, conveying warmth and humor in bright glowing bursts that can quickly subside into dark bitter rumintions on the wayward, reckless groove into which her life gradually fell."
I am strongly suggesting that if you have any interest or curiosity about Billie Hliday, that you go to Amazon and order the original Broadway cast recording of Audra McDonald in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," directed by Lonny Price and also featuring a fellow named Shelton Becton as her pianist and companion, Jimmy. A small dog named Roxie play Billie's ever-present Pepi, a real trooper. It's a two-disc CD affair with 28 songs interspersed with the dialogue of the play. You wll get a sense of the transcending, moving, daring performance which Audra gave....and understand quite clearly why we are honoring Billie Holiday anew on the hundreth anniversary of her birth.
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