The Best Books About Billie Holiday

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Danielle Directo-Meston
·5 min read
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With The United States vs. Billie Holiday streaming on Hulu, both longtime and new fans will likely be clamoring for more of the legendary jazz singer, who died in 1959 at the age of 44. Born Eleanora Fagan, Billie Holiday was among the targets of Federal Bureau of Narcotics head Harry Anslinger, whose racist agenda fueled a so-called crackdown on marijuana and heroin. That torment, as well as the music icon’s life, is the subject of the upcoming Lee Daniels biopic starring Andra Day as Holiday and Trevante Rhodes as undercover FBI agent-turned-lover Jimmy Fletcher.

Slated to land February 26th as a Hulu Original film, the movie also features Tone Bell, Erik LaRay Harvey, Garrett Hedlund, Miss Lawrence, Natasha Lyonne, Rob Morgan, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Evan Ross, and Tyler James Williams. Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks (the first African-American woman to win the award for drama) wrote the screenplay. Though it’s yet to officially hit the small screen, the film has already nabbed two Golden Globes nominations.

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What Are the Best Books About Billie Holiday?

Fans of Holiday can retrace her life through the singer’s own words, as well as through the recollections of those who loved and worked with her. The best Billie Holiday books examine not just the blues great’s tumultuous childhood and the more tragic details of life (from her adolescent years in prostitution, to her drug addiction, to her string of abusive relationships), but also Lady Day’s continued influence on pop culture and why her story is more relevant now than ever.

Ahead of The United States vs. Billie Holiday‘s release, we’ve rounded up six of the best books about Billie Holiday to bring you closer to the music legend — check out our top picks below.

1. Lady Sings the Blues the 50th Anniversary Edition by Billie Holiday

No Lady Day book collection is complete without Holiday’s official autobiography. Penned with writer William Dufty and originally released three years before her death, diehard fans will note that her memoir isn’t without embellishments. Despite the exaggerated truth, the book gives a true glimpse into the star’s rise to fame, her struggle with heroine addiction, and the discrimination she endured as a Black woman at every stage of her career.

Readers are there every step of the way as she discovers her upbringing in Baltimore (and the beatings at the hands of her cousin Ida), the music of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong at a whorehouse (where she worked in exchange for access to its owner’s victrola), and her ascension to stardom, from Harlem’s club scene to performing with Artie Shaw. It’s all told in Holiday’s street-smart voice, complete with the slang of the day.

This 50th anniversary edition also includes a revised discography, 15 new photos, and a foreword by music writer David Ritz.

2. Blues Legends and Black Feminism by Angela Davis

An icon in her own right, scholar and activist Angela Davis explores the careers of Black blues pioneers Billie Holiday, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (recently portrayed by Viola Davis in the big screen adaption of August Wilson’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), and Bessie Smith through the lens of feminism and socio-political contexts of their eras. In this 464-page tome, Davis examines how these three legends paved the way for the future blues heroes and the genre’s tradition as a counter-culture to mainstream America.

3. Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill by Jerry Dantzic

Two years before her death, Holiday performed at the New Jersey nightclub Sugar Hill, and this 144-page book shares a behind-the-scenes look of a week in the life of the star as captured by New York photojournalist Jerry Dantzic. With a foreword by Zadie Smith, the coffee table tome sees the singer in everyday scenes with family and friends, including with her godson (the child of William Dufty, who coauthored her autobiography), enjoying a pre-show drink, and many other offstage and onstage photos published for the first time here.

4. With Billie by Julia Blackburn

Writer Julia Blackburn paints a “complex, contradictory, and enthralling” portrait of Holiday through the stories of those who shared the stage, streets, and beds with the jazz great. The 368-book features interviews conducted by jazz historian Linda Kuehl, who spoke with women who spent time with Holiday at a reform school; her stepfather, Wee Wee Hill; Bobby Henderson, the “only man Billie ever loved”; bass player, John Levy; and even federal agent Jimmy Fletcher; among others.

5. Mister and Lady Day by Amy Novesky and Vanessa Brantley Newton

For Lady Day’s youngest fans (or those who want to see an illustrated side of the icon), author Amy Novesky and illustrator Vanessa Brantley Newton offer a glimpse of the legend and her beloved boxer, Mister, who cheered her on during her Carnegie Hall performance. Word to the wise that curious elementary-aged kids might need some extra story-telling around the more tumultuous parts of Holiday’s life.

6. Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth by John Szwed

Unlike other biographies that dive into Holiday’s tragic personal life, author John Szwed instead focuses on the singer’s musical artistry in his book, Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth. The 240-page tome examines its subject’s performance style, the persona she created, and how her spirit lives in modern-day pop music through singers such as Adele and others.

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