I bought my first Billie Holiday record at sixteen. I must have read about her somewhere, because I’d never heard her sing. But it was love at first listen, and I quickly found another compilation. Neither was considered her best work, but I didn’t care.
Her music stayed with me during a hard time when my family lost our home. Every night that summer, I’d switch off the lights, open the windows and just play her songs.
Later on I heard Lady in Satin, which became my favourite album (next to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On.) Her voice was broken but she still had soul. I also became interested in musician Lester Young, or ‘Prez’, who gave her the name ‘Lady Day’. As a student, I bought a double album of their work together.
I found a second-hand copy of her memoir, Lady Sings the Blues, when I first moved to Brighton. Although not wholly accurate, I still hold it dear. She survived the worst of childhoods, and amid the shadows of racism and addiction, her courage – and wit – never left her.
During my twenties I moved around so much that I wasn’t able to keep my record collection. In any case, Billie’s albums were the most scratched. When I married and had children, I replaced my collection with CDs.
Among the best are Lady Day – the Best of Billie Holiday, covering her early career; In a Soulful Mood; Billie Holiday – The Ultimate Collection, including eight of her later albums; and Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You – Live Radio, TV and Film Recordings.
She has her imitators, but no other singer comes close. For some, she is a tragic figure – but while she may have helped me through some bad times, I don’t see her that way. She was tough, funny and smart, and her music is a celebration of life.
As Paolo Hewitt once wrote, she was ‘lively and joyful, an optimistic woman, in love with love, in love with life, a singer whose innocence and beauty one immediately warms to.’