I saw her live twice during my lifetime (and hers). Once at the old Metropole in Manhattan's jazz district, and again at the CBS television studios in New York, one Sunday afternoon, during a live broadcast... in black and white before they began to use tape.
Billie Holiday was an amazing actress, in every sense of the term. Though she became a legendary jazz and pop singer, did to music and lyrics what no one had done before or since, and influenced generations of musicians, you had to see her perform to realize that she embodied that essence of theatre, the actor-audience heartbeat. When she sang, she listened to the lyric, believed in what she was singing, and with her voice, face and body... poured out that belief. Those around her, including the other musicians took it in, shared it, and were moved. Pure theatre, pure art.
When I saw her, her famed physical beauty was shadowed and blurred. Her voice had acquired a rasp that muffled the clarity she once had and limited her range. But her musicianship was intact and her acting heart was open and beating. She stirred people including those who knew almost nothing about her and her living legend.
Where did this come from, this ability to enter a sense of reality, create a belief around it, and send it to an audience? She didn't learn it in an acting class or as an apprentice to a master actor. She owned it in her mind and the circumstances in her life developed it. We call it a gift, we call it talent, we would call her a natural. I call her an actor, an artist, bent to be different from most other human beings, turned to be isolated and singled out.
In this day of tsunami music when Demosthenes and Richard III would both be roaming the land crying: "A true singer who can phrase, I'll give my kingdom for a singer who can phrase!" — if you haven't heard Billie Holiday, listen to her. Almost all of her recordings have been remastered and are available. And there are video clips and film clips which in a small way capture some of her magic. She was an amazing actress.