Lady Sings the Blues Book Summary - Lady Sings the Blues Book explained in key points
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Lady Sings the Blues summary

Billie Holiday with William Dufty

The 50th-Anniversay Edition with a Revised Discography

4.3 (128 ratings)
18 mins
Table of Contents

    Lady Sings the Blues
    summarized in 6 key ideas

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    Key idea 1 of 6

    Surviving since birth

    On April 17, 1915, a baby is born in Baltimore, Maryland. Her mother, Sadie Fagan, is only 13 years old. Her father, Clarence “Pop” Holiday, is just 15. They name the baby Eleonora – a name she’ll one day change to Billie.

    Like her parents, Billie starts working at a young age, mostly cleaning and babysitting. She also does errands for Alice Dean, who runs a brothel. Billie doesn’t get any money for that work. Instead, her payment is listening to records of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith in Alice’s front parlor.

    Music also influences Billie’s life at home. Her father, Pop, joins a traveling band and leaves Sadie on her own to care for Billie. Sadie can’t make enough money in Baltimore to support herself and her baby, so she heads north looking for new opportunities. That leaves Billie living in a small house with her great-grandmother, her grandparents, her mother’s cousin Ida, and Ida’s two children, Henry and Elise. Henry torments Billie, but Cousin Ida is worse – she beats Billie.

    Sadie returns to Baltimore with enough money to buy a house in the nice part of town and away from Cousin Ida – except it doesn’t prove to be nice for Billie. She’s raped by one of their neighbors, Mr. Dick, who’s sentenced to five years in jail. Billie, who is only ten years old at the time, is also punished. She’s sent to a Catholic institution where she’s supposed to stay until she turns 21, but her mother hires a lawyer and frees her after a few months of shame and abuse.

    Trouble follows Billie when she moves to New York City. Sadie finds Billie her own room in a nice Harlem apartment owned by a woman named Florence Williams. But what the proper Sadie doesn’t know is that Williams is a madam – and that apartment is another brothel. Billie, on the other hand, knows exactly where she is. She goes to work for Williams, and, at age 13, becomes a prostitute.

    Life as a call girl ends poorly for Billie, and she winds up in jail on Welfare Island. She fights, faces sexual advances, and is sent to solitary confinement during her four-month sentence.

    Billie survives her time on Welfare Island and comes out stronger – just like she’s overcome all of her childhood challenges. What’s more, she uses the pain from those early days to add depth and feeling to the voice that will eventually make her a star.

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    What is Lady Sings the Blues about?

    Lady Sings the Blues (1956) is Billie Holiday’s tell-all memoir. The legendary jazz singer recounts her life, from a brutal childhood in Baltimore to the start of her musical career in Harlem and – eventually – stardom tainted by racism and drug addiction. 

    Who should read Lady Sings the Blues?

    • Music lovers
    • Anyone curious about Harlem speakeasies
    • Fans of fast-paced, hard-edged memoirs

    About the Author

    Billie Holiday was one of the most influential singers in the history of American music. She cowrote Lady Sings the Blues with William F. Dufty, a newspaper journalist and editor who was married to one of her best friends.

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