Billie Holiday: The Last Interview

and Other Conversations

Legendary singer Billie Holiday comes alive in this first-ever collection of interviews from throughout her career. Included is her last interview, given from her deathbed in a New York City hospital, where police were standing by ready to arrest her for a parole violation should she recover. Also included: The transcript of an interrogation by a US Customs official questioning about whether she’d violated her parole by using drugs on a foreign tour.

But the book is more than a look at just the famously tragic side of her life. In other conversations, drawn from music magazines, late-night radio programs, and newspapers across the US and Canada, she discusses her childhood, musicians who influenced her, her friendship—and falling out—with the influential sax player Lester Young, why she chose the gardenia as her symbol, why she quit Count Basie’s band, her substance abuse problems, writing songs and whether she wrote her own memoir, and more.

In frank and open conversations, Billie Holiday proves herself far more articulate, aware, intelligent, and even heroic than she’s often portrayed. This collection is an essential volume for all who have been moved by her music.

Billie Holiday (b. 1915; d. 1959) was perhaps the greatest singer in twentieth century jazz. Her heartfelt phrasing and improvisational skills had a seminal influence on the form. She emerged from a troubled childhood to quick popularity in Harlem nightclubs, followed by commercial recording success. However, after drug problems landed her in prison in 1948, she lost her cabaret license, which meant she couldn’t perform in the jazz capital, New York City. This blow compounded problems with her finances, her health, her reputation, and, devastatingly, her voice. Despite a few triumphant comeback performances at Carnegie Hall and some mildly successful recordings, she never fully recovered her standing, and she died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1959 in a New York hospital—with police stationed at her door to arrest her on another drug bust should she recover. Holiday was the recipient of four Grammy awards—all of them posthumous.

Khanya Mtshali [introduction] is a writer and journalist from Johannesburg, South Africa. She writes about fashion, history, politics, race, gender, and books. Her work has been featured in the Guardian, The Outline, Timeline, Bookforum, The Rumpus, Quartz, Glamour, and The Daily Maverick.

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