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.’
BearManor Media, Billie Holiday, Dark Waters, Elia Kazan, Gang Smashers, Irving Thalberg, Jimmy Monroe, King Vidor, Nina Mae McKinney, Paul Robeson, Pinky, Race Movies, Safe in Hell, Sanders of the River, Stephen Bourne, The Black Garbo, William Wellman
Nina Mae McKinney, who made her screen début in King Vidor’s Hallelujah! (1929) – one of the first Hollywood films to feature an all-black cast – was hailed by MGM’s Irving Thalberg as ‘the greatest acting discovery of the age’. A vivacious beauty, Nina Mae had more in common with ‘It Girl’ Clara Bow or glamorous comedienne Carole Lombard than with the enigmatic Greta Garbo, to whom she was compared.
But like many other black actresses of her generation, McKinney was reduced to playing bit parts and never fulfilled her initial promise. Her subsequent career included roles in ‘race movies’ (films made outside Hollywood, for black audiences) and cabaret success in Europe. The British film historian, Stephen Bourne, who has previously written about other black female stars of the early twentieth century – including Ethel Waters and Butterfly McQueen – has now investigated the life and work of Nina Mae McKinney in his latest book, The Black Garbo. Continue reading