BOOK REVIEW / Called Lady Day, she came out only at night: 'Wishing on the Moon' - Donald Clarke: Viking, 16.99 pounds

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LIKE MANY Americans remembered for taking rotten care of themselves, Billie Holiday achieved cult status for all the wrong reasons. She dated (and married) a series of men as violent as she was; spent almost everything she earned on alcohol and drugs; and eventually became as notorious for her arrest record as for her discography. She ultimately became better known for living badly than for singing beautifully. Her friend Harold 'Big Stump' Cromer once described her: 'Lady became an ulterior thing, a real thing. A potentatress.' In many ways, Billie Holiday couldn't live up to her reputation, so the reputation went on living without her.

Born Eleanora Holiday on 7 April, 1915, she grew up without a father, self-taught and self-ruled. She learnt to sing by listening to juke-boxes and record players, and began performing in New York cabarets while still in her teens. She said she aimed for the 'feeling' of Louis Armstrong and the 'volume' of Bessie Smith. 'So, anyway, between the two of them I sorta got Billie Holiday.'

Holiday's career was beset by commercial misfortune. She was never quite blues, never quite big- band, and never quite pop. So unlike her more successful contemporaries - Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington - Holiday never broke through to a mainstream audience. She was the 'bad girl' you went out with for a good time but weren't supposed to marry, and she could make almost any lyric sound like it was about either getting laid or getting high. Her closest friend, the world's first great jazz saxophonist, Lester 'Prez' Young, nicknamed her Lady Day, but she only came out at night. In some ways her work was hard to categorise; in others, she was simply hard to work with.

Her road tours with Count Basie produced some of the best swing of the century, but because the men who ran recording studios then were just as stupid as they are now, Holiday and Basie were never permitted to cut any records together. Her ideal venues, however, weren't dance halls, but rather the 'cafe' clubs that developed in New York just after the Second World War. When her first drug conviction relieved her of her New York cabaret licence, she took to the road for years of exhausting one-nighters, and in the late Fifties she published her ghost-written autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, which she later claimed never to have read. Other people did read it, though, and later saw the movie. Holiday's legend soon outdistanced her music.

There is something about the relentless self-abuse of American artists which has always been misinterpreted as a sort of mystic yearning, and this has marked them out as totemic figures. There are times when Donald Clarke, in this richly documented biography, fails to dispel such cultish nonsense but rather seems to fall for it. He depicts Holiday as rebellious, street-smart, and someone who was practising black pride 30 years before it became fashionable.

But although Clarke's book occasionally resembles a hagiography, there is a lot to recommend it; it possesses both a keen sense of America's jazz history and a wealth of primary information - including oral accounts of Holiday by her friends and family, and Clarke's own detailed surveys of Holiday's published recordings.

Holiday beat her men and they beat her in turn; she stabbed them with broken glass, carving knives and the 'widdle wazor blade' she carried in her stocking; and when she died, friends couldn't help wondering whether it was the gin or the heroin that finally killed her. But while personal remembrances of Holiday vary widely, one coherent vision of her remains - a woman who possessed only one overpowering intention in her entire life, and that was the getting out of it.