This publication comes shortly after the release of major collections of Billie Holiday recordings on the Columbia, Decca, and PolyGram/Verve labels. With the tremendous public interest generated by these collections, Robert O’Meally wishes to prevent a resurgence of common myths about Holiday: that hers was a “natural,” untutored talent, that her greatness as a singer stemmed from her sordid experiences of drugs, prostitution, no-good men, and excessive sensitivity in a crassly indifferent world. Such an assessment, says O’Meally, turns Holiday’s story into a “case study” and ignores the real reason history remembers her—“the lure and spiritedness of her voice,” which she deliberately, painstakingly cultivated.
True, Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan) created much of her own myth. One cannot even trust the veracity of LADY SINGS THE BLUES, the autobiography she wrote (probably for publicity and money) with reporter William Dufty from conversations and already published interviews. One of her piano accompanists expressed doubt that she even read it.
The story that Holiday took seriously, O’Meally argues, was in her music. In her understated way, she could give a song dramatic elements of parody, farce, or tragedy. Thus, O’Meally asserts, she created through her songs “roles that included criticisms of the roles as written as well as something of her own, her own story.” Instead of giving mere “renditions,” she turned even the most mediocre of these songs into works of art.
More of an appreciation of Holiday’s music than a full biography, this book could have benefited from close editing. Some passages are repetitious, and not all the song titles are accurately given. But these are minor faults, and LADY DAY deserves to be read for its intriguing thesis and fresh presentation of artistic and personal issues in Holiday’s life.