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Billie Holiday Hardcover – July 13, 1995

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Basing his sensitive, perceptive biography on interviews with those who knew the great jazz singer (1915-1959) and on extensive research in court records, police files and newspaper accounts, Nicholson (Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz) chronicles Holiday's tragic life. Raised in speakeasies and brothels, she saw singing as a way out of a tawdry world, but her promising beginning was soon sidetracked by addiction to alcohol, drugs and abusive men. By the time she was 23, her brilliant career began to go downhill, and it would later be seriously marred by arrests and jail terms for narcotics possession. Insecure and abnormally dependent on others, Holiday always put herself at the mercy of self-serving people, and she died lonely, depressed and virtually penniless, a victim of her own self-destructiveness and the many people who had exploited her. Stressing throughout his book the interaction between Holiday's life and her art, Nicholson laments that her image eventually overshadowed her music. He successfully portrays both the genius and the tragedy of the legendary Lady Day. Photos.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Holiday's legend is that of the archetypal tormented artist: enormously gifted in one specific area yet unable to cope with everyday life and eventually done in by her own excesses. Although the legend is basically true, the facts have been obscured by the popular 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues and Holiday's somewhat hazy autobiography of the same name. Nicholson attempts to set the record straight in this exhaustively researched book containing over 500 references, a 30-page discography, and five appendixes. The book is essentially divided into two parts?the years 1933 to 1942, when Holiday's association with Columbia established her as one of the greatest jazz singers of all time, and the remainder of her life as her involvement with heroin culminated in her death at age 44 in 1959. This scholarly look at one of the giants of American music is a worthy complement and counterpoint to Holiday's own account.?Dan Bogey, Clearfield Cty. P.L. Federation, Curwensville, Pa.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Northeastern; y First printing edition (July 13, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1555532489
  • ISBN-13: 978-1555532482
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,615,073 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By MP Grier on December 29, 1998
Format: Paperback
Mr. Nicholson's book was, for the most part, a clear and enjoyable read. I respected his dedication to uncovering facts about Billie's birth, childhood, and family. I also enjoyed the careful attention he paid to her musical choices because too many people have thought of Holiday as a woman whose genius was entirely intuitive. Those people have neglected the fact that jazz was (is?) an aural art form, studied by listening just as Western scholars learn by reading. Thus, the analysis of her style and note selection did not bother me... when it got too tedious for my taste, I skipped it.

I must applaud Nicholson for stepping on some toes. As a Holiday fanatic, I am used to books and films (including Holiday's autobiography) that leave only a trace of the "real" Billie Holiday. i have come to understand, however, that this trace is, without Holiday's physical presence, all we have of her. Our understanding Holiday requires retelling, re-inventing the story--not merely looking for facts, but being conscious of how we arrange them. Nicholson takes on the Holiday mystique with vigor. Everything from her birth record, to her girlhood rape and addictions to drugs and bad men is scrutinized. Nicholson often uses Holiday's own words (whether ghost-written by William Dufty or not) to de-mystify Lady Day.

I appreciate Nicholson's thorough challenges to the legend not because they replace the mystique, but because they add to our "reconstruction" of Billie Holiday. I disagreed rather strongly with his claim that Holiday's artistry was, finally, less than that of Ella Fitzgerald, but I found his extended comparison of the two women useful for further listening.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Jack in W.Va. on November 29, 1998
Format: Paperback
If one skips the heavy musicological anlaysis, there's fascinating history here. Nicholson nails Billie's disputed birth dates and parents. He corrects misconceptions about her marriages. He captures her temperament (and her temper) and details the darkest and brightest sides of this legend from Baltimore -- and her awkward relationship with her mother Sadie. Finally, he depicts better than most "Billiecologists" the day-in, day-out, sing-here, sing-there, hired-here, fired-there nature of this unsurpassed song phraser's checkered career. But as a fan of Nicholson's, I wish this work matched the excellent standard of his Ella Fitzgerald biography published in 1995. "Ella" was compelling precisely because one did not wade through psuedo-doctoral discussions of musicology to find the real, shy Ella -- her music, her style, her history, her art. Alas, this is not the case here. While I still recommend this book to every serious Holiday fan because of the historical gems Nicholson serves up, one cannot but fault the over-analysis. Somehow, I can't picture Billie striding into a studio, cigarette in hand, slightly high, tumbler of brandy on the piano, saying to herself, "Let's see -- I'm going to sing with often conspicuous ornamentation -- vibrato, lelisma, a slur, a mordant, an appoggiatura, plus [my]inimitable growl." Do we really need to know that "Now They Call It Swing" is structured A (8 bars), A (8 bars), B (8 bars) and A (8 bars plus 4 bars)? Or, "She essentially reduces the A theme to two semi-tones, which are repeated a third down and back in the tonic key again . . .Read more ›
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By Amazon Customer on February 23, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
It is a great book that is very interesting. It is not dry and is very detailed in what it says. I would suggest it to anyone interested in Billie Holiday.
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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Jack in W.Va. on November 23, 1998
Format: Hardcover
If one skips the heavy musicological analysis, there's fascinating history here. Nicholson nails Billie's disputed birth dates and parents. He corrects misconceptions about her marriages. He captures her temperament (and her temper), and details the darkest and brightest sides of this legend from Baltimore, and her awkward relationship with her mother Sadie. Finally, he depicts better than most "Billiecologists" the day-in, day-out, sing-here, sing-there, hired-here, fired-there nature of this unsurpassed song phraser's checkered career. But as a fan of Nicholson's, I wish this worked match the excellent standard of his Ella Fitzgerald biography published in 1995. "Ella" was compelling, precisely because one did not have to wade through psuedo-doctoral discussions of musicology to fine the real, shy Ella -- her music, her style, her history, her art. Alas, this is not the case here. While I still recommend this book to every serious Holiday fan because of the historical gems Nicholson serves up, one cannot but fault the over-analysis. Somehow, I just can't picture Billie striding into a studio, cigarette in hand, slightly high, tumbler of brandy on the piano, saying to herself: "Let's see: I'm going to sing with often conspicuous ornamentation -- vibrato, lelisma, a slur, a mordant, an appoggiatura, plus [my] inimitable growl." Do we really need to know that "Now They Call It Swing" is structured A (8 bars), A (8 bars), B (8 bars) and A (8 bars plus 4 bars)? Or, "...She essentially reduces the A theme to two semi-tones, which are repeated a third down and back in the tonic key again...Read more ›
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