By Dee Dee McNeil
March 1, 2021
New Documentary ‘Billie’

On cable television’s Prime Channel, you will find a compelling look at the life of BILLIE HOLIDAY, using old interviews from some of the people who knew her best.  It’s fascinating stuff! The reel-to-reel tapes spin off several very personal details of Lady Day’s life.  It’s a New Black Film and Belga Production project, that reveals to us a young, jazz lover, consumed by revealing the real truth of Billie Holiday’s life and death.  The slender, Jewish journalist, Ms. Linda Lipnack Kuehl, uses a reel-to-reel tape recorder to interview a host of people who knew and loved the iconic Ms. Holiday.  You will hear the voices of Tony Bennett, Billie’s cousin John Fagan, a local pimp named Skinny Davenport and the great Count Basie.  It seems that Basie and the twenty-something journalist struck up a very close friendship as she worked on this autobiography.  Pigmeat Markham spoke of meeting and hearing Billie Holiday sing at the Apollo Theater, when everyone in the audience was smoking reefer and Ms. Holiday was doing the same in her dressing room.  Pigmeat said she stood regal, in a green spotlight, and mesmerized the crowd.
We sometimes hear Billie Holiday herself speaking on tape, extricated from a historic radio interview she made.  Billie tells the listening audience, “I always wanted to sing like Louie Armstrong played.”   

You’ll hear opinions about the iconic Lady Day from her friend and sometimes roommate, Rubie Davies, who said some folks called Billie ‘Mr. Holiday’ because she could easily have her way with women or men.  Philly Jo Jones, the famous drummer who played with Count Basie’s band, recalls when Billie was their frontline singer.  Jo Jones said that John Hammond fired her from the band when she refused to sing the Blues songs he wanted her to sing.   John Hammond comes right behind him (on tape) and denies that accusation.  Count Basie says he can’t remember what happened to make Billie leave.

Artie Shaw recalls going on tour with Billie as his lead vocalist and how, in the Southern States, the white bandmembers were given hotel rooms and Billie would have to sleep in the bus, because they didn’t allow blacks to stay in those Southern hotels.  During these tours, Billie’s friend Mae Weiss says that Ms. Holiday always ordered an extra hamburger and stuck it in her purse.  This was to insure she would have food if they came to a restaurant that refused to serve people of color.  Barney Kessel said he heard her soul when she sang “Strange Fruit” and Charlie Mingus said she exposed racism in this country with that same controversial song.  The sorrowful ballad brow-beat white audiences and was gut-wrenching for African Americans.  Although most audience members were intrigued by the song, some club customers walked right out, complaining that the poignant lyrics made them uncomfortable.  Billie Holiday was one of the first jazz singers to include protest songs in her repertoire.  Jimmy Rowles, legendary pianist said he met her when he was just twenty years old and she loved singing with the man she dubbed, “Prez,” Lester young.

In 1947, the Philadelphia police department shot up her Cadillac.  You see the car with giant bullet holes in its frame.  In an interview, the police chief said they resented her wearing full length furs and diamond earrings, and had been told, by higher-ups in the police department, that the “Feds” wanted her off the streets and in jail.  Some said John Levy was behind her arrests, because he wanted to put her in prison so she could get clean from her drug abuse. But many believed it was because of her song, “Strange Fruit.”

Bobby Tucker, the pianist who accompanied her for four years accused her manager, John Levy, of being a pimp and a parasite.  He said he once saw John Levy knock Billie Holiday to the ground in a very violent way.  Historic trombonist and arranger, Melba Liston also recalls being on tour with Billie Holiday and saw her and John Levy get into a big fight on the tour bus.  Melba said, when they got to the hotel, after the concert, Billie cracked Levy’s head open with a coca cola bottle that sent him to the hospital.  She had to go to the hospital for her injuries as well.

Born April 7, 1915, Billie Holiday died in a hospital on July 17, 1959.  She was only forty-four years old. She lived hard and died young, but left us a legacy of incredible music.  When I listen to her recordings, she pulls every emotion out of me.  Her voice is one-of-a-kind.  She says, in her documentary, that the one song she wrote that sums up her life best is “Don’t Explain,” yet here we are, still trying to explain and make sense of her life and music.

Sadly, the young woman who was writing this biography on Billie Holiday (Ms. Linda Lipnack Kuehl) was found dead before she ever completed her project.  Linda’s family said her life had been threatened for asking too many questions.  The police report read she had jumped from a Washington, DC hotel window and ruled it a suicide.  However, none of her friends or family believed it.  This is a documentary with many facts about Billie Holiday’s life and Linda Lipnack Kuehl’s short life, that may surprise the viewer.

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NEW FILM: The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021)

ANDRA DAY stars in the Lee Daniels motion picture production that is currently airing on HULU Cable.   Her voice strongly resembles Ms. Holiday in tone and phrasing.  Notably, actress/singer, Andra Day even has her mannerisms locked into place, right down to the way Billie once arched her left eyebrow.  Impressive!  Casandra Monique Batie took the stage name of Andra Day by cutting the Casa off of her first name and adopting Lady Day’s last name as her own.  She’s been a fan of Billie Holiday since she was eleven years old.

Lee Daniels, who directed “The Butler” motion picture and also the, award winning “Precious” film, continues his winning streak with this production.  His ability to capsulize a picture of black-America, using an African American view point, is what makes Mr. Daniels genius at what he does.

In this film, he focuses on the continuous African American struggle against systematic racism and inequality during Billie Holiday’s lifetime.  He spotlights her fight to use music to both protest and make a difference, i.e.: the song “Strange Fruit.”  In this song, about lynching, Lady Day poignantly called attention to the wicked ways and the sins of the South, when it came to people of color.

Andra Day said she didn’t want to take the role because she wasn’t a seasoned actress and, in fact, had never acted.  She was terrified of not being able to become a believable character.  No worries.  She obviously conquered her fears.  The fledgling actress idolized Billie Holiday and Diana Ross, who played Billie in Berry Gordy’s 1972 Biopic, “Lady Sings the Blues.”  Andra said she didn’t want to put a stain on either the legacy of Billie Holiday or the Ms. Ross depiction of Lady Day.

The soulful singer heard Lady Day when she was just a teenager.  In preparing for this role, she read every book, looked at every documentary and movie about Billie Holiday and sat for long talks with Lee Daniels.   He had a specific idea of how he wanted an actress to portray Billie.  Ms. Andra Day wanted to be authentic in the role.  She praises Tasha Smith, her acting coach, for giving her the tools she needed and to rise to the occasion.  Andra expressed surprise at how diligent the FBI went after Billie for singing the song, “Strange Fruit.”

I will be absolutely shocked if Andra Day’s performance is not celebrated with multiple awards, including for her original song that she performs at the end of the film.  This is a must-see motion picture, that gives Andra Day the role of a lifetime and gives the audience an entirely fresh look at the life and struggles of Billie Holiday, who the film dubs, Godmother of the Civil Rights Movement.