A door opened on the first floor up; a huge woman emerged, glancing down the stairs mixed with curiosity and suspicion. "You the feller wants to see Billie?"
There was no need to ask who was addressing me. The round face and full mouth; the whole impression of Billie multiplied by three, pound for pound, told me that this was Mrs. Holiday, the patient and aggrieved mother whose life was vainly dedicated to achieving communication with her daughter.
The little living room was in almost complete darkness. Four or five men sat intently absorbed in Lights Out, a weekly radio thriller. Closest to the radio, and wallowing in an aural orgy of murder and gunfire, was the woman who, as always, was the focal point of the room. Sleek-haired, smartly dressed, elaborately made up, Billie was the epitome of glamour, a young woman by whose side I was neither a visiting London journalist nor a guest but simply a naive and nervous cipher in the presence of royalty.
As Lights Out ended, the party came to life, and Billie brought out a big stack of records; her own, Teddy Wilson's, and dozens more. On the mantelpiece were signed photographs of Teddy, Maxine Sullivan, Pha Terrell (a popular black ballad singer with Andy Kirk's band) and one of Billie herself in an ingenious frame composed of 5,000 matchsticks -- she told me proudly that it had been painstakingly assembled and sent to her from jail by an admirer who was serving a twenty-year sentence. "He sent me a song along with it that he wrote and wants me to use. Maybe I'll do it on my next session."
Nothing about Billie during that evening presaged misfortune or doom. Instead, an unselfconscious camaraderie was immediately discernible in her warm, friendly manner. I asked her to play "Billie's Blues," which had a special meaning for me: as John Hammond's guest, I had first met her during the session at which it was cut. It was doubly significant to me because I had been as much in love with the blues as with Billie. Asked where she had found the unusual lyrics, she replied: "I've been singing them same blues as long as I can remember. I made up those words myself. That's how I made my whole income as a composer. A couple of months ago I got a royalty check for the record -- just eleven bucks!" But she said it without a trace of the rancor that twenty years later was to run through the pages of her Lady Sings the Blues.
Sadie Fagan Holiday interrupted us with the story of how her daughter used to annoy an aunt with whom she lived by singing those same blues about "my man this and my man that." Billie was a child, she was told, and had no business singing about such things. "But the first song she ever sang was 'My Mammy,' and she used to sing that to me all the time!"
During my first visit to Billie's apartment, I found her to be poised and gracious. I knew no more about her private indulgences than Mrs. Holiday did, but had I known I'm sure I would have justified them with elaborate rationalizations. I have a theory about Billie that conflicts with the conventional explanations of her life and times. I believe that if she had been taken out of the environment that was slowly beginning to swallow her up, the end would not have come when it did and her vivid patterns of gently twisted melody might still be part of our lives. Had she accepted an offer to go to England, for example, and found there a group of admirers who could give her personal and economic security, the agony and the squalor might have been avoided.
On that first evening I had tried to convince her that she and the overseas audience were ready for one another. "Well, I had one offer last year, fifty pounds a week," she said. (That was $250, and in those days, for Billie, it was a very substantial temptation.) "But those musicians over there they can just about read and that's all, huh? I'd have to bring my own musicians with me."
I tried to reassure her by playing a few of Benny Carter's new recordings with a British band. She hadn't suspected until that moment that British musicians had even heard of swing music. When a particular passage moved her, she would say, "Man, that sure sends me!" and rock in gentle rhythm around the room. But when a passage displeased her, she would murmur, "No, I ain't comin'!"(From Satchmo to Miles - Da Capo Press)