As with Frank Sinatra, as with Aretha Franklin, as with Elvis Presley, as with George Jones, as with Nat King Cole, as with Sarah Vaughan, as with Johnny Cash, as with Al Green, as with Kurt Cobain, as with–unfortunately, but it must be said–Snoop Dogg, coming to terms with Billie Holiday means penetrating an unfathomable mystery: her voice. To one extent or another this holds for most good singers, and my list–while politely making room for Vaughan and her gravitas in addition to the odious Dogg–is limited by age, happenstance and personal bias as well as the need to stop somewhere. For instance, it excludes the “classical” tradition, whereas Roland Barthes’s seminal 1972 essay “The Grain of the Voice” was inspired by lieder specialist Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who Barthes reported “reigns more or less unchallenged over the recording of vocal music,” as if Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and for that matter Edith Piaf had never existed. Nevertheless, it is in popular music, so much less stringent as to technical standards and so much more invested in performer mystique, that grain reigns.
That Billie Holiday was blessed with an extraordinary instrument isn’t immediately apparent even to those who admire her. As Henry Pleasants put it, she had “a meager voice–small, hoarse at the bottom and thinly shrill on top, with top and bottom never very far apart.” And what little she had she wrecked. When I discovered her in 1959, she had died a few months earlier at 43, so like most of my contemporaries, I formed my bond with the Holiday the rock critic Carol Cooper calls “our lady of perpetual suffering.” By the mid-1950s, her timbre often cracked and her melodies sometimes staggered, especially on off-label live recordings like the one I bought. If you’d asked me why I liked her, I would have cited her ability to contain pain (only then I would have made the verb a bald and inaccurate “express”), her sly improvisations (which often prove less radical than that truism implies) and her “swing,” a concept that like “flow” in hip-hop covers up a myriad of inexactitudes–Holiday’s time in particular is a wonder that resists analysis as unflappably as her sound. These were and continue to be the standard answers, and they’re all essential to her matchless achievement. But they don’t nearly explain her fascination.
Julia Blackburn’s fascination with Billie Holiday began when she was 14, at a party thrown by her mother that featured two prostitutes and two people dancing around with their clothes off and an old man giving her the eye and her mother giving the old man the eye. Blackburn “escaped to a far corner” and spent the night playing a 1975 compilation called A Billie Holiday Memorial–most of it from the 1930s, the finale from the lush, lost 1958 Lady in Satin. Next day she bought the LP, which she’s kept ever since. A quarter of a century later, still entranced by “the way her voice could chase out my fears,” Blackburn decided to write a book about Holiday. The author of two well-regarded novels and several works of history, she elected to focus not on Holiday’s voice but on her life, which for many feels like the closest thing they can get to it. So she contracted with promoter Toby Byron to examine the Linda Kuehl archive: a trove of taped interviews, laborious and sometimes inaccurate transcripts of those tapes, documents, artifacts and slivers of biography previously accessed by Holiday chroniclers Robert O’Meally and Donald Clarke, although Blackburn is the first to examine more than the transcripts. Kuehl assembled this material over many years; her plan to write a definitive biography died when she committed suicide in 1979.
Strangely, Blackburn couldn’t write a biography either. Instead, in something like desperation, she assembled portraits of Kuehl’s interviewees, and these, added together in all their contradictory subjectivity, constitute her portrait of Holiday. Fortunately for Blackburn, the ploy worked. With Billie is a compelling and intelligent book, less in its exposition than in the way it’s conceived and assembled. But so are O’Meally’s coffee- table “biographical essay” Lady Day and Clarke’s biography Wishing on the Moon and Farah Jasmine Griffin’s 2001 If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, written without Kuehl because Griffin couldn’t afford the fee. All are worth reading, and that is a credit to Holiday’s profundity–she’s inexhaustible.