Fifty years ago this month, the American public were queuing outside theatres to watch a much-talked about film based on Billie Holiday, one of America’s greatest singers, who died in 1959 at the age of forty-four. Affectionately known as ‘Lady Day’, wearing a trademark gardenia in her hair, Billie’s singing style influenced many contemporary singers and her life story has, sadly, an awesome relevance today – racism, alcoholism, promiscuity and drug abuse, combined with out-dated laws, official bureaucracy and the trials of life itself.
Born on April 7th 1951 in Baltimore, Maryland, Billie stunned the world when she began her brilliant autobiography Lady Sings The Blues, published in 1956 with “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three.” Her young life then began with a series of atrocities: an older cousin assaulted her and her great grandmother, an invalid for many years, died clutching the young girl in her death grasp. Traumatized by these events Billie spent four weeks in hospital suffering from shock. When she was ten, a man tried to rape her and for that she spent two days in jail. Later, she was confined in a Catholic home with the body of a dead girl as punishment. She was subjected to regular beatings from an aunt who looked after her while her mother sought work in various parts of America. So, it was inevitable that the abuse and horror of her early years would take their toll, resulting in an emotionally and mentally scarred adult who felt alone, abandoned, vulnerable and totally inadequate.
In her teens, Billie turned to prostitution and ended up in jail when she refused a black client. While incarcerated she fought off the advances of a lesbian and the fight that followed resulted in her getting an extended sentence. Her escape from the red light district and entry into show business is now legendary but throughout her career she suffered untold indignities because of her race. She fell into the hell of drug abuse in an attempt to block out the ugliness that surrounded her. There were, of course, intervals in her life that were overflowing with joy, love and luxury. Lady Day was the ‘talk of the town’, the consummate artist, who soaked up the respect of her peers and the adoration of an international audience. Her only true escape though was singing, and she absorbed the sentiments of each song, singing from her very soul, from her whole being.
Billie met an early death on 17 July 1959 in New York’s Metropolitan Hospital, where on her death bed, narcotic agents, who had hounded her for most of her life, arrested her. The singer had made a fortune for herself and others during her lifetime, yet on that July morning she had $750 strapped to her leg and only seventy cents in the bank. Someone said of her death, ‘ Billie died of everything’.
It was all of this that Diana Ross intended to bring to life on the big screen – although I think it’s fair to say the result was based more on fantasy than fact. To help me inject a different slant to this well-publicised film, I phoned Chris Clark for her input. After all, it was she Berry Gordy called in to re-write the script from the original by Suzanne de Passe and Terence McCloy. “Fifty years ago, when we did this film, we were still up against racism,” Chris told me. “The fact that we managed to make a film with a woman of colour, whose experiences while she gained jazz stardom spanned the range from getting raped, working in a cat house, to becoming a junkie, was a major feat at that time. We wanted her spirit and the music to drive the film. And we needed the audience to love her and be rooting for her.”
At the time of the film’s shooting Berry Gordy explained that if he had stuck diligently to Billie’s book, the film would have been a documentary about a singer who had suffered one tragedy after another: “I tried to find the other side of Billie that wasn’t in the book and not on the back of album sleeves. I tried to find the person very few people knew about. There were to sides to her. There were not all downs, because while she was high and tragic, and she got caught up in the whirlwind of dope, she was also a happy person, a funny and loving person.”
It was when Berry realised the script was ‘terrible’ that he approached Chris to take a look. “Aside from all the ‘hey babies’ and ‘slap me five’ attempts at black dialogue, it lost the heart and God help me, the humour” she said. “There was definitely an aspect of the film that was ‘slight of hand’ due to the audiences of that time. I guess the best example of that was an early scene where Billie was a young girl, working as a maid in a whore house. She’s scrubbing the steps and gets frustrated at how the women are treating her. Throws down her brush and stomps up the steps. The next shot is of her coming down those same steps decked out in finery. We know she has made the transition to a working girl.
“Later we see her in her room. It’s a melancholy shot, sitting in her slip in front of the mirror and smoking. Suddenly, Scatman Crothers leans obscenely into the room (no offence Scatman, as that was absolutely what he was supposed to bring to it) and begins a dialogue about what they’re going to do. As he takes off his clothes, Billie starts putting hers back on – ‘Mister, I just quit the business!’ Now in theory, she’s been working there awhile, and has probably serviced some characters that were much worse. But this is the first time we’re actually bumped up against the reality of it.”
When Berry Gordy was first approached by producer Jay Weston and director Sydney Furie to finance Lady Sings The Blues, they suggested Diana Ross should play lead. Berry was unsure she had the ability to carry it off, but changed his mind when they insisted she could probably be nominated for an Oscar. Chris had no qualms about Diana’s suitability to play the demanding role. “I saw her in it as I was writing. I had absolutely no doubt. I had no idea how she’d find what she had to bring to it – but I knew the pressure wouldn’t get to her. I’d watched her take on incredible challenges as a performer, seen her thrown out on stages in clubs that hadn’t welcomed black performers. She brought her A-game. And we supported her behind the scenes with all we had. But it was her alone out there pulling it off.”
When Diana was given the script, it’s said she was, in her naivety, appalled at the number of scenes she was expected to play in. Subsequently, Berry made a few alterations to the script before submitting it to Paramount after Fox showed little interest. As Paramount were nervous about sinking millions of dollars into an unknown black actress, Berry agreed to share the cost. Subsequently, the door was open for other Motown singers, like Yvonne Fair who appeared as a Harlem cabaret singer and collected her customers’ cash between her legs as was the custom in the ‘30s. Blinky Williams, while not seen in the movie, sang “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do”, while during a downtown nightclub sequence, Michele Aller performed “Had You Been Around” and The Lewis Sisters were auditioned for a radio show. Diana’s co-stars were Billy Dee Williams, who played her husband, Louis McKay, and Richard Pryor as the Piano Man. Robert Gordy, Berry’s nephew, was also spotted in the film’s credits.
The film was delayed for a month while the script was re-written, and once Berry was satisfied, the revised hundred-page script took forty-four days to shoot, with one hundred and sixty-eight different scenes! For the first six days, Diana played a teenager but by the fourteenth, she appeared old enough to confront a Dixie Klan parade. Working a twelve-hour day, Diana appeared in almost every scene.
Filming kicked off on December 6th 1971. The original agreement between the film company, Paramount, and Berry provided that he would pay any costs in excess of $2 million. “He had to put more money in it to buy us time to make all the changes we wanted” Chris explained. “Everybody thought he was crazy.” When, after filming was underway, Diana moaned she was unhappy with her wardrobe and insisted she re-design it all herself, costs soared. “The producers felt she was a temperamental bitch,” Berry told the media. “So did I – in a way – but because of what I felt were emotional ties between Diana and Billie, I reluctantly gave in completely to her wishes. We increased the budget for clothes and turned it totally over to her.”
The new rags and gowns weren’t cheap, as she called in designers Ray Aghayan and Bob Mackie. Thinking out loud, I wonder what happened to the clothes when the film was finished? Someone counted that Diana had forty-three costume changes throughout the film ranging from tattered teenagers’ sweaters to elaborate stage gowns. I must say that, while I never counted them, I have no reason to doubt that figure. However, a couple other points I did find out: Berry had insisted the film should span a (staggering) three-and-one-half hours instead of the ninety minutes proposed by Paramount, and that Diana herself should concentrate more on singing and less on drama!
And so to the music. The final selection of the film’s repertoire included numbers like “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be?)”, “Don’t Explain”, “I Cried For You”, “All Of Me”, “Strange Fruit”, “My Man” and, of course, “God Bless The Child”. All were re-recorded under the strict supervision of Berry and Gil Askey, the film’s musical co-ordinator. Incredible as it seems too, several of the musicians, including Harry Edison, Red Holloway and John Collins heard on the soundtrack, actually backed Billie Holiday’s performances. On the original release, musical sequences that included “Louis Visits Billie On Tour” are also featured for added continuity.
Lady Sings The Blues was perhaps Hollywood’s most racially integrated film of the time because, of the sixty-four speaking parts, thirty-four were played by black men and women, while extras included people who actually knew Billie Holiday during her lifetime or were loyal fans. It was completed two days ahead of schedule in late ’72 and premiered on October 23rd the same year in New York City. It was obvious to anyone who saw it, that Diana had studied Billie and her life religiously before attempting such a demanding role. “I didn’t in any way try to sound like her or phrase anything like her. Her music got to me by osmosis,” Diana explained at the time. “It just came into my body by living with it and playing it constantly. In fact, during that time I don’t think I listened to any other music except hers.” Her greatest obligation was, she added, not to exploit Billie’s life but to portray her as the legend she rightly was. “I worked very hard with our script and with everybody involved with the film. Through Billie’s music you can gain great understanding of what she was all about. In fact, that’s how I did most of my research. I felt her in my singing. I also read between the lines to understand the things that were happening to her in her songs. I felt that she expressed her total being in her songs, what she felt about life and death at that time.”
Diana couldn’t escape from the atrocities that Billie experienced and two songs in particular brought her to her knees. “The first was ‘Strange Fruit’. I’d never seen men hanging from a tree with a rope around their necks and I found one picture in the research that helped me understand the song. Seeing that photo was very emotional because it was like something you don’t really believe. The other was ‘God Bless The Child’ which is a philosophy that people had to make it and work to do things they wanted to do in this life. A philosophy they could live with: ‘Them’s that got shall get, and them that’s not, shall lose. You’ve got lots of friends hanging around your door when you’ve got it. When it’s gone, they don’t come ’round no more.’ I found that Billie was aware of all the problems and she subsequently showed them in her songs.” A double disc soundtrack was released in December 1972 and by March 1973, it had become Motown’s fastest-selling album, at the rate of 300,000 in its first selling week, reaching the top of Billboard’s Top 200 Album charts and No. 2 on the R&B Album listings, ultimately selling over two million copies and achieving gold certification in the UK.
During her media tour prior to the film’s premiere, and as was probably expected, Diana faced an onslaught of criticism concerning her lack of qualifications to play the starring role. She retaliated in The New York Times with “people felt I couldn’t play the tragedies. They think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I was surprised how good I was. The first time I heard a Billie Holiday record I thought ‘what’s so great about her?’ I didn’t really care about her until I did research on her, until I began hearing snatches of people’s memories of her. That’s how it all started. She brought sophistication and class into music. She was a beautiful lady up on stage, and she became a legend because of her craft and talent.” Diana also harboured feelings that the public believed her own life had been uncomplicated and easy, unlike Billie’s time on this earth. “I’m not saying that the problems that Billie faced are the same as any that I’ve had but I can relate to problems and tragedies also. In many ways I’m glad the film has shown people that I’ve a brain too.” When it became apparent that there was a total negative response from industry figures and others to Diana playing such a complex role, she contacted Berry Gordy to get her out. “He said we were too committed so I just gritted my teeth and got down to it. I’m happy that I did my best for the film.”
While the film was being shot, Motown/EMI geared it promotion towards its UK premiere. Working with Paramount Pictures, one of the biggest campaigns seen in this country for a film and soundtrack was put in place. A wide selection of incentives were distributed. For example, Motown pressed two hundred and fifty records containing selected tracks which were played in cinemas two weeks prior to the film’s screening. A fifteen-minute film extract was also prepared for the university circuit. The British premiere was at midnight on April 4th 1973 in Shaftesbury Avenue’s ABC-1 cinema. Diana attended the screening and stayed over here long enough to include a couple of television spots.
What of the critics? Well, most agreed Diana excelled in this, her first dramatic role but were angered at the film’s betrayal of Billie’s life. The Melody Maker carried this review: “In many ways this is a pointedly anti-white film. Billie is first turned on to junk by one of the white musicians in the band with whom she is touring. Miss Ross bears no resemblance to Billie Holiday, either facially or vocally, and this movie is true to the great singer’s life only in skeletal detail. Its tone, like its colour, is glossy; the actual pock marks are filled in.” The critic in another British music paper Disc criticised the accuracy of the whole film but particularly the closing section: “Another fault is the film’s ending which tries to compress the sordid events of Billie’s last year into superimposed headlines during her performance at Carnegie Hall in an effort to close the film on a note of triumph and joy. There was triumph but very little joy in Lady Day’s life. But – and this is a very big but indeed – Diana Ross’ performance carries the film so convincingly that she will certainly be a big contender for the ‘Best Actress Academy Award’ next spring.”
Indeed, Diana was nominated for an Oscar as ‘Best Actress’ at the 45th annual Academy Awards ceremony on 27 March 1973, but lost to Liza Minnelli for her performance in Cabaret. Afterwards, Diana had a little moan: “I really worked hard on that god-damned film and I really felt that I deserved that Oscar. But just because I didn’t get it doesn’t mean to say I won’t try again.” Other Oscar nominations included Chris Clark, Suzanne de Passe and Terence McCloy for ‘Best Original Screenplay,’ and Gil Askey for ‘Best Score Adaptation’ and ‘Original Song Score’. I didn’t read anything about them moaning: the opposite, in fact, they were honoured to be nominated in the first place. However, all wasn’t lost as Diana was showered with honours, with the Golden Globe and NAAPC Image awards, among them. With or without the awards, Lady Sings The Blues is timeless!
My thanks as always to Chris Clark for her help here; this time at short notice! And I feel it’s only right that we end this month with Billie Holiday’s words, when she wrote of a happier time in her autobiography, which I guess to be around 1954 or so: “The night of my big concert in London was the biggest thrill of my life, and the biggest place I ever worked. A thirty-four-piece band to back me. Wow! And the audience? They don’t get them like that at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. After I was introduced you could have heard a pin drop in that huge place. You could hear my heels clicking on the floor as I walked to the centre of the stage. And when I was through, there was beautiful applause like you never heard in your life.”