I was a confused little boy. My mother and sisters were crying so intensely, I wondered if I should run to my nearby grandparents’ house for help. They were watching Lady Sings the Blues, each of them equally emotionally overcome. I recognized Diana Ross on the screen but at the time knew nothing about Billie Holiday, the legendary jazz singer Ross perfectly portrayed in the 1972 biographical film.
Wearing a shimmering white dress and matching flower in her hair, Holiday sang “God Bless the Child” with the help of an orchestra behind her. As she so elegantly crooned, newspaper headlines began appearing over the musicians; one read “Holiday Smash at Carnegie; Flop at License Commission,” the next one announced “Holiday Appeal Denied for Cabaret License,” followed by “Singer Re-Arrested On Drug Charges.” The one that made my three ladies blue read “Billie Holliday Dead at 44.”
Sharing the title with Holiday’s 1956 album and autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues has been striking heartstring chords for nearly 35 years. Holiday is such a beloved singer with an admirably beautiful voice and song catalog, I’ve learned it’s hard for audiences to keep themselves straight while watching her troubled life unfold, a life overwhelmed with one too many unattractive wrinkles.
Holiday endured rape, sexism, racism, jealously, legal battles and drug abuse on her tragic journey into music history. Canadian director Sidney J. Furie brought real air to Holiday’s atmosphere, but it was Ross who took audience’s breath away. The cover art for the film suggests “Diana Ross is Billie Holiday.” The former Supremes lead singer brought not just star power to the role, but unequivocal honesty. Academy Awards voters believed it enough to nominate Ross for an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
My mother, sisters, and, I’d assume, many others believed Ross’ portrayal enough to shed tears. This is the reason, in real life and on film, Billie Holiday is a legend in urban culture.
—Mr. Joe Walker
Mr. Joe Walker is an urban and pop culture enthusiast. Known as “The Word Heavyweight Champion”, the biographer, author, entertainment and celebrity journalist, and columnist is currently a senior writer for SoulTrain.com, staff writer for Muskegon Tribune Newspaper, and writer of weekly classic hip-hop reviews for Concrete Magazine’s Concrete615.com. Also co-creator of TheGrooveSpot.com, Walker’s acclaimed, award-winning work has been published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. He is also working on a book project with Liquid Arts & Entertainment. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker, connect with him on Facebook, and also visit his blog MrJoeWalker.blogspot.com.