The night Billie Holiday sang to an empty club

American jazz singer Billie Holiday
American jazz singer Billie Holiday Credit: Redferns

Almost 60 years since her death, a play honouring troubled jazz great Billie Holiday is coming to the West End. Ivan Hewett reports

In a dingy little club in Philadelphia, a hunched black woman comes tentatively to the front of the stage. There’s a pianist to one side in the shadows, and no more than seven in the audience.

She seems wizened and old, and can barely stand, but then, when the pianist starts to play, something happens. The woman comes back to life and a sombre, heart‑broken voice fills the air.

This was Billie Holiday, one of the greatest jazz singers of all time, two years before she died, her body racked by years of heroin and alcohol addiction and her bank account bare, the singer having lost her cabaret performer’s licence and squandered her money on drugs and drink.

When Lanie Robertson heard about this extraordinary gig, at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, from someone who had been there, he was deeply moved.

“This was the singer who had sold out Carnegie Hall ten years previously,” he says. “I was profoundly affected by this image of the world’s greatest singer being forced to sing for crumbs in a city where she did not want to be, where she had to sing because she had a contractual obligation.” Philadelphia was where the Federal Bureau of Narcotics found drugs in Holiday’s hotel room while she was there on a singing engagement in May 1947. The consequent loss of her cabaret card blighted the rest of her life.

Robertson’s play, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, is now in preview in the West End starring Audra McDonald, the Juilliard School-trained singer who won a Tony award for the role in 2014. The play, which was first staged in America in 1986, sees McDonald recounting stories from Holiday’s life using the songs that made the jazz singer famous, including God Bless the Child, What a Little Moonlight Can Do, Strange Fruit and ’Tain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do.

Many of the horrors of Holiday’s life are covered: her childhood growing up in the care of an abusive relative, her rape at the age of 11, her time in a Catholic “House of Correction”, the violence visited upon her by men and the many racist indignities she suffered throughout her life. (Even when she was a star and performed with the bandleader Artie Shaw, she still had to travel to the other side of town to a rat-infested motel after the concert because, as a black woman, she wasn’t allowed to stay in the same hotel as a white man. When she sang in the Deep South, she was forced to blacken her face, as she was light‑skinned, and no one would tolerate a white woman singing with black musicians.)

Billie Holiday performs on Valentine's Day, 1954 Credit: Hulton Archive

But the play refuses to join the world in turning Billie Holiday into a victim. Instead, it shows a brave woman battling against almost impossibly hard circumstances, looking fate in the eye with a joke and a raised glass of her favourite booze, and turning her experiences into artistic gold. Robertson says he chose to portray Holiday this way after 18 months of research, listening to her music, devouring everything that had been written about her and talking to all those who had ever known her. Back in the mid-Eighties, when Robertson was working on the play, there were quite a few; now there’s barely a handful of people who knew Lady Day. One of them is the Sri Lankan-born singer Yolande Bavan, who met Holiday in 1958 when she was an aspiring jazz singer. The 75-year-old paints a very different image of the tragic diva of the biopics.

“I met her in Paris. I was singing in a club and she was there with her pianist, Max Waldron,” says Bavan. “She was very nice to me, I think because I was so innocent, and said, ‘If I had a daughter I would like her to be like you’. She had such a wicked sense of humour, she could imitate people so well. She was very sarcastic about her husband Louis McKay, who treated her very badly, and she used to joke about the revenge she’d like to take.”

Holiday took the young Bavan under her wing. “‘I want you to come and learn how to be a proper jazz singer,’ she said, and I spent hours and hours in her flat. She taught me four or five songs.”

Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill Credit: Alastair Muir

Six months later, when Holiday appeared at the Chelsea Palace Theatre  in London, the tables were turned. It was the young Sri Lankan who had to look after the star. “She was depressed, her health was bad. Remember it was only six months before her death [in July 1959]. She hadn’t been able to work in New York because she was banned from clubs. I remember I sent her ten quid to help her out.

“But she was still protective towards me. She didn’t want me to suffer from drugs the way she had. ‘If you ever come to America and I catch you doing drugs I’m going to whup your head,’ she said.”

It’s often said it was the dubious men in Holiday’s life who kick-started her drug habit, but the truth is her rip-roaring appetite for a good time was just as important. Self-restraint was simply not in her nature. Buddy Tate, the elegant saxophonist in the Count Basie Orchestra who was romantically involved with Holiday for some years, said to her, “Lady, you can’t get high all the time, not every day,” but she wasn’t inclined to listen. It was her huge appetite for life, plus her beauty as a young woman, that attracted lovers of both sexes. Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead were besotted with her, and she had flings with Charles Laughton and Orson Welles.

Yet at the time of her death, at the age of 44, Holiday had slipped into near-oblivion. She could barely sing, and an air of disapproval hung around her dissolute life. She was compared unfavourably to the other great jazz singer of the day, Ella Fitzgerald, who seemed so wholesome in comparison. Fitzgerald did what great artists are supposed to do; achieve a measure of separation between their life and their art — Holiday’s art was dragged down by life and her own wild temperament. She died in hospital, handcuffed to her bed, under house arrest for heroin possession. Her total worldly wealth – around $1,300 – was found taped to her thigh, in the form of $50 bills.

Holiday, pictured during a night out in 1954 Credit: Charles Hewitt/Picture Post

McDonald admits it’s a challenge to embody the many different sides of Holiday’s personality. But it is one she relishes. “We all know her as this iconic voice and this troubled soul, and that’s certainly a part of who she was,” she says. “But she was also a consummate artist who knew how to use her voice, how to work with other musicians. And she also had a very maternal side, she always wanted to have children.

“She was a very funny and very sharp person; she was as smart as she could be, given the little education she had. I just found a whole woman, held back by her colour and her gender and her addictions. But if you look at everything that life threw at her, she did astonishingly well. Really it’s a wonder she lived as long as she did. I wanted to do the best I could to honour this remarkable person.”

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill is at Wyndham's Theatre until Sep 9. Tickets available at ladydaywestend.com or 0844 482 5120