Monday, February 15, 2010

Black History Month Classic Movie Blogathon: LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1972)

During the 1970's through the mid-1980's, Diana Ross was one of the most successful female artists, crossing over into film, TV and Broadway. She received a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her 1972 role as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, where she won a Golden Globe award. She won awards at the American Music Awards, twelve Grammy Award nominations, and won a Tony Award for An Evening with Diana Ross, in 1977. In 1993, the Guinness Book of World Records declared Diana Ross the most successful female music artist in history with a total of eighteen number-one singles. Twelve as lead singer of The Supremes and six as a soloist. Ross was the first female solo artist to have six number-ones hits. This puts her in a tie for fifth place among solo female artists with the most number-one hits. She is also one of the few recording artists to have two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one as a solo artist and the other as a member of The Supremes. In December 2007, she received a John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Honors Award. Including her work with The Supremes, Ross has released 67 albums.

In 1971, Motown announced that Diana Ross was going to portray jazz singer Billie Holiday. A film loosely based on Holiday's autobiography Lady Sings the Blues (1956) written by Holiday and William Dufty. The critics were not convinced that Ross was perfect for the role. Ross and Holiday were considered to be very different in singing styles and appearance. Ross knew little about Holiday, but.. was not really a big fan of jazz.

October 1972, Lady Sings the Blues was a huge success. The movie co-starred Billy Dee Williams and Louis McKay. The cast also included Richard Pryor as the "Piano Man". In 1973, Ross was nominated for both a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award for "Best Actress". Winning a Golden Globe for Best Newcomer. The soundtrack album for Lady Sings the Blues reached number one on the Billboard 200 for two weeks.

The story begins 1936, New York City, where Billie Holiday is arrested and taken to the NYPD police station: The film goes back in time to 1928, where you hear a woman call Billie by her real name, "Eleanora". Billie has an run in with a rapist, the madame comes to her rescue and throws him out and sends Billie home. Soon after, her Aunt and her children leave, Billie, puts on a record to listen to, only to find the rapist has followed her home. Billie, tries to leave, but the rapist over powers her.

In the next scene, Billie is taken to her mother by the a police officer. Her mother feeds Billie, and sets up a job for her to clean at a brothel in the Harlem. The brothel is run by a woman Ms. Edson. One night, Billie goes to a nightclub, owned by Reg Hanley. Reg tries to get rid of Billie, but she says that she knows every single song. She meets Louis McKay, then a guard picks Billie up and takes her out of the club. Later when, Billie is all alone in her room, Ms. Edson sends up a customer, who tries to get Billie in bed with him. Billie, all dressed up, says.. "Sorry. I've just quit the business". Billie goes to the club where she was once kicked out of, and auditions. Reg tells her to leave when she can not keep up with the others girl's dance routine. Billie finds her best friend the Piano Man , who plays the song "All of Me". Reg believes she has a talent for singing, and hires her and she quickly takes the stage name of "Billie Holiday." Billie's debut at the nightclub, does not go well.

After the show Billie receives a paycheck, and flowers sent from Louis. Billie begins to date Louis and a secret life of a heroin addict. She is soon discovered by two men, who sign her to Decca Records. By the end of the 1930s, Holiday becomes a famous jazz singer. At the height of her success, Billie experiences a horrific moment. Which inspires her to record one of the most controversial songs in history, Strange Fruit.

I thought Diana Ross on screen performance was amazing. She realistically shows the up and downs of Holiday's life. I'm not really a Richard Pryor fan, but his powerful performance, in his supporting role as the piano player was also amazing..

Billie Holiday, also has been portrayed by Ernestine Jackson, in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. In 1987, Billie Holiday was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She ranked #6 on VH1's 100 Greatest Women in Rock n' Roll in 1999, and she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. There have been many tributes to Billie Holiday, including "The Day Lady Died", a 1959 poem by Frank O'Hara, and "Angel of Harlem", a 1988 release by the group U2. A 1953 Holiday concert in New York is a key feature of the 2009 Arthur Phillips novel The Song is You.

United States Postal Service introduced a Billie Holiday postage stamp in 1994.

Billie Holiday, also has performed in a couple of films. The first was in 1933, Billie Holiday played an extra in Paul Robeson's The Emperor Jones. Then, in 1935, she played role as a woman being abused by her lover in Duke Ellington's "Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life". She also sang a tune called "Saddest Tale". ‎Holiday had one major film performance, opposite Louis Armstrong in New Orleans (1947). The musical drama featured Holiday singing with Armstrong and his band and was directed by Arthur Lubin. Holiday was not very happy that her role was that of a maid. she thought she was going to play herself in the film. Singing a couple of songs in a nightclub setting. Holiday also performed in the 1950 Universal-International short film "'Sugar Chile' Robinson, Billie Holiday Count Basie and His Sextet", where she sang "God Bless the Child" and "Now, Baby or Never".


  1. Dawn, this was a very informative, interesting article about Diana Ross, Billie Holiday, and LADY SINGS THE BLUES. I remember that Diana was considered a frontrunner for Best Actress in 1972, but lost to Liza Minelli who won for CABARET. Cicely Tyson was also nomintaed in 1972 for SOUNDER. At that time, Diana and Cicely were two of only three African American Best Actress nominees (Dorothy Dandridge was nominated in 1954 for CARMEN JONES). As of 2010, there have been a total of eight African Americans nominated for Best Actress.

  2. Dawn And Rick, I have real mixed feelings about this film. I remember at the time of it's release the "Hype machine" was going working overtime. Diana was on the old Mike Douglas show and Mike also had Billie's good friend and Jazz critic Leonard Feather the show .Leonard was having none of the hype, and
    called her out about her performance .He was brutal.
    I was in college at the time and working in a record store,and when people came in to buy the soundtrack LP we would let them hear the 'Real Thing" . So on one hand Diana did help to make young people aware of "Lady Day" but I have a very hard time with her performance. Richard on the other hand was very good.

  3. I am a huge Billie Holiday fan, Dawn. Her singing is so raw and visceral. I enjoyed Lady Sings the Blues; mostly because of Richard Pryor's Piano Man. Paul is right about the soundtrack issue, though. Ross doesn't come close to Holiday's ability. Yet, Ross did a fine job in the movie--especially when you consider she had no formal acting training. Thanks for highlighting this film.

  4. I am not a Diana Ross fan but think she did a credible job in the role. As far as the singing, there is no comparison between Billie and Diana's singing. It's a difficult film and helps you to understand Billie's lifelong torment.

  5. Forgot to say though that is an amazing photo of Diana on the post.

  6. Dawn, Billie's voice went through many "changes due to her "life style. I'd have you listen to her early work with Artie Shaw, and her recordings on Commodore records when the voice was young and amazing. Her best later recordings are on the Verve label her last recording Lady In Satin on Columbia is in someways painful,and a joy to listen to. The voice is gone but everything else is working.

  7. Thank you everyone, for sharing your fun facts with me. I really enjoyed learning about Billie Holiday. She had a very hard but, interesting life. I was suprised to learn that Ross had such a hard time with the critics. To me it seemed that Ross put her all into her performance. I do plan on adding Billie Holiday's early work with Artie Shaw, to my CD collection.

  8. Dawn ,OMG what a great clip of Billie and what a band ,Prez, The Hawk, Ben, and Jerry on Sax's Roy and Doc On Trumpet. Wow.

  9. Dawn I should have said Gerry nott Jerry, like I always say, I can't type worth a darn.

  10. Paul, I also enjoyed watching the clip of Billie and the band.

  11. Nice post on "Lady Sings the Blues." While not a great film, it's certainly watchable. Considering Diana Ross' lack of formal acting training, it's a terrific performance -- if you can separate her voice from it, which as mentioned already doesn't compare to Billie Holiday's. Here's an odd tidbit to share: A few years ago I saw Diana on TV where she talked about how Richard Pryor coached her through the drug scenes, which produced a gasp from the audience.

  12. Welcome Classicfilmboy, Thank you for sharing a couple fun facts.


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