Billie Holiday was a complicated artist whose singular voice put her among the greatest American musicians. As the new documentary Billie shows, when she started getting political, most notably with her anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit,” the backlash was swift and severe.
From the producers, Altitude:
Billie Holiday, one of the greatest voices of all time, was always controversial – a proud black woman who preferred white audiences, an exploited artist and a violent drug addict, a loyal friend and a vindictive lover, a blues singer who didn’t sing the blues, and when she sang the seminal protest song Strange Fruit, an enemy of the state. Her enigmatic accounts of her own life were a mix of half truths and free-form improvisations.
Then, in 1971, journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl set out to write the definitive biography of Billie. Over 8 years, she tracked down and tape-recorded over 200 hours of interviews with the extraordinary characters that populated the iconic singer’s short, tumultuous life. Raw and brutally honest, incredible testimonies from Charles Mingus, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Count Basie, her step-parents, school friends, jail-mates, lawyers, pushers, pimps, and even the FBI agents who arrested her – but Linda’s book was never finished and the tapes never heard. Until now.
The film colorizes some of her iconic performances. Here’s a still from the film of Billie singing “Strange Fruit,” her anti-lynching protest song:
And here’s the original live performance in 1959, shortly before her death at age 44:
My personal favorite is from her 1946 Decca sessions, “In My Solitude.” What a voice!
Image: YouTube / Greenwich Entertainment