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Billie Holiday's story worthwhile, whether fact or not


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A new generation of Billie Holiday fans should enthusiastically greet the 50th anniversary edition of her classic autobiography "Lady Sings the Blues" (Harlem Moon/Broadway Books, $15.95 paperback) when it hits bookstores today.

Just don't expect a lot of accuracy from the late singer.

Since its original publication in 1956, "Lady Sings the Blues" has helped set the standard for gritty, warts-and-all first-person celebrity memoirs. Ghostwriter William Dufty deftly captured Holiday's speaking voice and way with a yarn, while ignoring time-honored traditions regarding writerly attention to grammar and sentence structure.

Early in the book, for example, Holiday describes her first exposure to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith recordings as a girl growing up in Baltimore: "A whorehouse was about the only place where black and white folks could meet in any natural way. They damn well couldn't rub elbows in the churches. And in Baltimore, places like Alice Dean's were the only joints fancy enough to have a Victrola and for real enough to pick up the best records."

While a riveting read, one of the reasons that "Lady Sings the Blues" may have been allowed to go out of print in the 1980s was a growing controversy regarding some of the facts contained within Holiday's story.

Even the first line of the book --- "Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married" --- has been proved inaccurate.

In his 2000 book "Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights," author David Margolick observed that "Holiday's parents never married and were scarcely together at all, except at the carnival (or dance) in Baltimore on the night in the fall of 1914 when she was conceived."

Historical accuracy isn't of paramount importance to author David Ritz, who provides the foreword for the book's 50th anniversary re-issue.

"I didn't give [an expletive] about the historical inaccuracies," Ritz says. "It captured the essence of Billie Holiday. It's the trade-off you make. These people aren't historians. They're artists. The question should be, 'Do we get a compelling character that jumps off the page?' The answer with 'Lady Sings the Blues' is yes. A good first-person memoir becomes a piece of the artist."

Ritz should know. He first read Holiday's memoir when he was 13 and it inspired his career choice. Over the decades, Ritz has worked with artists including B.B. King, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Smokey Robinson on similar first-person accounts for print.

In "Lady Sings the Blues," Holiday also takes credit for helping to create her signature song, "Strange Fruit," named by Time magazine in 1999 as "The Best Song of the Century."

In truth, the searing depiction of lynchings in the South was written by Abel Meeropol, a white Jewish schoolteacher from New York City who thought Holiday would be the ideal singer to popularize "Strange Fruit."

Inaccuracies aside, in "Lady Sings the Blues," Holiday doesn't shy away from the uglier aspects of her life, including her feud with Sarah Vaughan and her battle with heroin, an addiction that would end her life at age 44 in 1959.

At the time of its publication, some criticized Holiday's book deal as the result of the singer needing some quick cash for drugs.

Fifty years later, however, "Lady" remains significant for being the only in-depth, first-person account of her career Holiday ever committed to print. ALSO NEW THIS WEEK

> "The Messenger" by Daniel Silva, a thriller featuring Israeli art restorer/spymaster Gabriel Allon.

> "Dead Wrong: A Novel of Suspense" by J.A. Jance.

> "Insight: Case Files From the Psychic World" by Sylvia Browne with Lindsay Harrison.

Copyright 2006 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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