This is a great sprawling mess of a book with all the exuberance and confusion of a Harlem gin mill. In the noise and crush of personalities, fascinating facts about the history of the African-American, the social, anthropological and geographical aspects of their lives – and encyclopedic details about the music – Billie Holiday is often lost from view.
The facts of her life are grim but commonplace to her time, her race and sex. She was born in 1915 to a teenage mother in Baltimore, when there was still no municipal sewage system and pigs roamed the streets as the only reliable refuse collectors. With a mother who could barely look after herself, let alone anyone else, and a feckless teenage father, Leonora (Billie) was sent at nine to a Catholic reform school where she was almost certainly inducted into petty crime and sex – lesbianism, as it happened, because, as a fellow inmate explained, it was something to do.
Life for her was a fact not a fairy tale. By ten or eleven she was hanging out with the madam of a brothel, but already she knew she could sing. A contemporary remembered the precocious Billie: 'She became a fast woman. She wanted fast money, fast life, that's right