No regrets

With Billie

Julia Blackburn <em>Jonathan Cape, 354pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 0224075896

Julia Blackburn draws on the testimonies of more than 20 friends and acquaintances of Billie Holiday to create this absorbing portrait of the singer. This is Holiday as seen through the eyes of childhood friends, musicians, showbiz hustlers, pimps and junkies, some with such evocative names as Stump Daddy Cross, Pony Kane and Memry Midgett. The book traces Holiday's story from her chaotic childhood, through an adulthood marked by drug abuse, alcoholism, incarceration and emotional turmoil, to an early death (at 44) that mirrored the tragedy and complication of her life. When she died in hospital on 17 July 1959 from liver, lung, cardiac and kidney problems, she was under arrest for having kept heroin in a box of tissues by her bed.

Blackburn set out to write a conventional biography but, as she admits, she "ended up with something more like a documentary". Her work is largely based on the archive of the late Linda Kuehl, who in the 1970s obsessively tracked down and interviewed more than 150 people with personal experience of the singer, intending to write a biography of her own. Before the proposed book materialised, Kuehl ended her life by jumping out of a hotel window.

Blackburn bases her account on "the most interesting and eloquent" of Kuehl's interviews, as well as her own research and various secondary sources (including my 1995 biography). Blackburn skilfully weaves these materials together and what emerges is a story well told. Twice shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, Blackburn has an eye for the kind of detail that brings a milieu to life: in Holiday's case, the twilight world of the American nightclub. The one drawback is that the music doesn't get much of a look-in.

The way Holiday's image worked in tandem with her music remains the least understood aspect of her art, yet it is the source of her enduring appeal. From the first, she cultivated the persona of a woman unlucky in love, and the songs she chose to sing reinforced this image. By 1958 when Lady in Satin, her last album, was released, the myth and the music had all but merged; it is impossible to separate her bruised voice from our knowledge of her real-life history. Julia Blackburn, by renewing this interaction between Lady Day and the real Billie Holiday, has contributed much to the legacy of a remarkable human being.

Stuart Nicholson is the author of Billie Holiday (Orion)