Daniel Matlin

Lady Sings the Blues

Billie Holiday: The Musician & the Myth

By John Szwed

William Heinemann 310pp £20 order from our bookshop

A recording from the 1950s captures Billie Holiday in conversation with some fellow musicians at a rehearsal. ‘I’m telling you,’ she says, ‘me and my old voice, it just go up a little bit and come down a little bit. It’s not legit.’ And she was right. With a vocal range barely stretching beyond an octave, she really could only go up and down ‘a little bit’, and she wouldn’t have lasted a day at any of the conservatories that trained aspiring singers in the ‘legit’ techniques of classical or operatic performance. Since Holiday was incapable of the vocal gymnastics displayed by the likes of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, her place in the first rank of jazz singers surely rests on other qualities. It’s in drawing those out that John Szwed’s book is at its most valuable.

The familiar view has it that what imbued Holiday’s singing with such power and profundity, despite the obvious limitations of her voice, was a kind of personal authenticity. What Szwed calls the ‘myth’ of Billie Holiday –

Sara Stewart


Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • Interesting thread by Aki there on inclusivity in publishing. (Read her tweets for full thread.),
    • RT : A conference about inclusivity in publishing is a fantastic idea, but doesn't £200 seem a short-sighted undermining of, well, inclusivity?,
    • Calling all friends of bulbous salutations & the elfin grot: lots of entries to have already come in, but my door’s still open...,
    • 'Why the hell don’t they have more fun with their money?' Patrick Leigh Fermor skewers the super-rich ,
    • When Lenin went interrailing: Catherine Merridale charts his journey in her new book ,
    • Deadline today to win a pair of tickets to The Entertainer starring Kenneth Branagh. To enter, email marketing[at] .,