Forty years ago this month, the long-awaited motion picture Billie Holiday bio-pic Lady Sings The Blues opened in theaters. Starring Diana Ross as Billie “Lady Day” Holiday, the film was a critical and commercial success.
The movie was loosely based on Holiday’s 1956 autobiography of the same name, which took its title from one of Holiday’s most popular songs.
Berry Gordy, chairman of the Motown Records empire, bought the film rights to Billie Holiday’s life story and used it as the first film production for his newly formed Motown Productions. Gordy had moved the Motown headquarters from Detroit to Los Angeles in the early seventies so that he could focus more on movie production.
The screenplay was adapted by Chris Clark, Suzanne DePasse (both of whom worked for Gordy), and Terrence McCoy and was directed by Sidney J. Furie. The film also starred Billy Dee Williams as Holiday’s love interest Louis McKay (many said he was a fictional character since she never had a boyfriend by that name), and Richard Pryor in one of his first movie roles as Holiday’s piano player. Also appearing were Scatman Crothers, Virginia Capers as Holiday’s mother, and Isabel Sanford (Louise, aka “Weezy,” from The Jeffersons) as a madame of a brothel. Model and actress Jayne Kennedy had a small cameo as Louis McKay’s date.
Of interesting note is that Levi Stubbs, lead singer of the Four Tops, was originally offered the role as Louis McKay, but he turned it down.
It was a no-brainer that the role of Billie Holiday would go to Motown’s first lady, Diana Ross. This drew a lot of criticism from many people at the time. One school of thought was that Ross did not look like or resemble Holiday, with many feeling that the role should have gone to a singer like Aretha Franklin or Roberta Flack. Another reason was that many people felt Ross’ high pitched singing voice did not sound at all like Holiday’s.
One of the chief reasons many objected to Ross’ playing the role of Holiday was that many did not believe that Ross simply could pull it off. Ross’ “diva” persona made skeptics wonder if she could tackle the role of the troubled blues singer.
Intent on proving the skeptics wrong, Ross intently studied every aspect of Holiday’s life as well as all of her songs. She listened to the songs repeatedly to get the feelings that Holiday was trying to convey through her music.
In order to show that Ross had depth as an actress, the filmmakers decided the opening shots of the movie would not show Ross as glamorous and dressed to the nines. Instead, the first scenes of Ross as Holiday showed her looking strung out and being placed under arrest, finger printed and placed into a straight jacket, locked in a jail cell, her hair in disarray and no make-up. Ross’ convincing performance in the film’s opening scenes surprised and shocked a lot of people, showing to them that she was indeed a serious actress.
The film then flashes back to 1928 where Billie, as a young teenager, has an encounter with a rapist. She is rescued by a madame and after returning to her Aunt Ida’s house, she accidentally leaves the door open, giving the aforementioned rapist a chance to go inside and rape her. After the incident, Billie runs away to her mother, who secures a cleaning job for her at a brothel in Harlem. One night, Billie sneaks into a nightclub with black showgirls where she first sees Louis McKay but is eventually kicked out. Tiring of her cleaning job, she becomes a prostitute for a while and after she quits, heads to the nightclub she was kicked out of and auditions with the showgirls, but is told to leave since she could not keep up with the girls’ dance moves. Billie befriends the piano man who plays the song “All of Me,” which Billie sings. Jerry, the owner of the club, hears her singing talent and books her for a show, beginning her career as a singer. Her debut at the nightclub is not successful and Billie ends up getting booed. Louis happens to be at the club and holds a fifty dollar bill in his hand for her to continue singing. Embarrassed and ashamed by the catcalls and booing, Billie stands frozen until Louis asks her, “Do you want my arm to fall off?” Billie timidly takes the bill and sings again. Shortly thereafter, Billie and Louis begin dating.
The remainder of the film focuses on Billie’s singing career, her tumultuous relationship with Louis and her drug habit which takes a damaging toll on her health, talent and relationships. Aside from Ross’ marvelous singing of Holiday’s songs and the opening scenes, another of Ross’ memorable scenes occurred when Louis refuses to allow Billie access to use her drugs and she fights him and pulls a razor on him. Louis leaves her to shoot up dope as a strung out Billie sits slumped over on the toilet in the bathroom.
The film was a box office hit and was both a critical and commercial success. Critics and audiences praised Ross’ performance. Berry Gordy pulled out all stops in the promoting the movie. Posters from the movie were everywhere, with many captions reading “Diana Ross Is Billie Holiday.” Ross also graced the covers of many publications during the film’s release.
The movie’s soundtrack was also a huge success, going to number two for three weeks on the soul charts in early 1973 and the coveted number one spot on the pop charts for two weeks in April 1973, and went on to sell two million copies during its first week of release.
The album jacket for the soundtrack was designed to resemble albums of the 1930s. Released on Motown Records, the gatefold featured a large photo of Ross as a strung out Holiday in a four-walled jail cell while she is being tended to by Louis and a doctor. A small photo of Ross as Holiday singing appears on the back of the album jacket.
The soundtrack yielded one hit single, Ross’ rendition of “Good Morning Heartache” backed with her version of “God Bless the Child.” The single went to number 20 on the soul charts and number 34 on the pop charts.
The film also re-ignited not only an interest in Billie Holiday and her music, but also the 1930s and 1940s blues and jazz music and era as a whole.
Billy Dee Williams became a sex symbol after the movie’s release. His permed relaxed hair, moustache and smile were eye candy for many women across the country.
Billie Holiday’s trademark gardenias, which Ross also wore in her hair in the movie, spawned a fashion craze among many women who took to wearing flowers in their hair to resemble the “Billie Holiday look” after the movie’s release.
Ross received the Most Promising Newcomer Award for a female at the Golden Globe Awards for her strong portrayal of the blues singer as well as a Best Actress nomination. Many believed she was sure to win the Best Actress Oscar at the Academy Awards a few months later.
The movie received several Academy Award nominations: Best Actress (Diana Ross), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Carl Anderson, Reg Allen), Best Costume Design, Best Original Score and Adaptation (Gil Askey) and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced. Ironically, Ross shared the Best Actress nomination with another black actress, Cicely Tyson for her role in Sounder. Sadly, neither Ross nor Tyson won; they both lost to Liza Minnelli for her role in Cabaret. In fact, the film didn’t win any Oscars at all.
Ross made her feelings public not only about her loss at the Oscars but the film as a whole being shut out in all of its categories.
Despite the movie’s losses at the Academy Awards, Lady Sings the Blues is a timeless masterpiece. Although Ross herself acknowledged that she did not look or sound like Billie Holiday, she nevertheless captured and embodied the soul, essence and aura of the legendary jazz singer. She made Billie Holiday’s songs her own while still paying tribute to her. Ross was already a superstar but after the film’s release, she became a megastar. Indeed, “Lady Di’s” portrayal of “Lady Day” solidified her as a serious actress. Moreover, Lady Sings The Blues’ huge success helped Berry Gordy become a major player in the Hollywood movie scene. The movie as a whole kept the legacy of Billie Holiday alive and introduced the lady and her music to a new generation of moviegoers and music lovers.
Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer, Soul Train historian and soul music historian. He will be appearing in the play “My First Experience at the Garage,” based on the popular eighties club, on October 19 and 20 in New York City at Symphony Space. For more information visit, www.symphonyspace.org.