In the liner notes to A Tribute to Billie Holiday executive producer, Peter Stormare talks about how he first got turned on to the legendary singer. It was 1970 and he was a teenager in Sweden. Jimi Hendrix, "one of the gods of rock and roll," had died and he and his friends were in mourning. His mother recognizing his unhappiness suggested a book that might help him deal with his hero's death. The book was Lady Sings the Blues, the autobiography of Billie Holiday. The book's passionate honesty, he says, when he finally got around reading it, changed his life.
It is interesting that it is her book and her life rather than the music that Stormare highlights in his notes. Indeed, it is interesting that he has nothing at all to say about her music. After all, in the end it is the music that is the whole reason for the tribute in the first place. Not that the tragedy of her life is unimportant, clearly it is. But were it not for the greatness of her music, her tragedy would have melted into obscurity like so many thousands of others. In some sense her music is the expression of her life. Her gift was the ability to use her talent to make her audience feel what it was like to be Billie Holiday, to feel the highs, to feel the lows.
The tribute begins with an introductory reading from the autobiography by actress Angela Bassett. Other readings are scattered sporadically among the thirteen musical covers collected for the album from a variety of contemporary artists. Bassett's impassioned readings about Holiday's poverty and addiction, her sexual mistreatment as a child, and her penniless death while facing arrest for drug possession are some of the best things on the CD. They are raw and gritty and they help to define the singer's voice and style. Unfortunately this is not always the case with some of the musical selections.