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Nina Kristofferson's Billie Holiday Story @ The Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury

Published by: Yvonne Delahaye on 2nd Apr 2014 | View all blogs by Yvonne Delahaye

It’s a sad fact that some of the world’s most talented artists live their lives in alcohol and drug-induced hazes and die tragically young.  The comparison between Amy Winehouse’s tragically short life and that of Billie Holiday is very marked, but we can take comfort that their music will remain forever.  Billie died in 1959 at the age of 44 of cirrhosis of the liver, after many years of alcohol and drug abuse.

Billie Holiday’s story is extremely sad, beginning with childhood rape and prostitution, but somehow she managed to escape and at 15 became a singer.  Her unique style of improvisation was based on hearing Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong singing and wanting to use her voice as an instrument.  Without any formal training and with a limited range, she created sounds that are virtually impossible to emulate even today. 

Frank Sinatra was influenced by her performances on 52nd Street as a young man. He told Ebony in 1958 about her impact:
With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.

Lady Day was the nickname given to Billie by her old friend saxophonist Lester Young and the name stuck.  Between 1944-47 she won the Esquire Magazine’s Gold and Silver Awards for Best Female Leading Jazz Vocalist.  Billie Holiday was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old and that have "qualitative or historical significance."  In 1972, Diana Ross portrayed Holiday in the film Lady Sings the Blues, which is loosely based on the 1956 autobiography of the same name. The film earned Ross a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Nina Kristofferson’s Billie Holiday Story is touring following a successful run in the West End’s Charing Cross Theatre in 2013.  Supported by a 5 piece band, the show features some of her most memorable songs God Bless the Child, Don’t Explain, All of Me, The Man I love, Lover Man, Strange Fruit and Body and Soul amongst others.  Interspersed with the songs, Nina acts out some of the stirring and haunting memories that plagued Billie throughout her life.

Nina’s extensive career has encompassed theatre, TV, panto, Shakespeare and cabaret.  It’s very tough to perform a one-woman show, but Nina is supported throughout this show by her brilliant band Allan Rodgers (Musical Director/Pianist), Martin Shaw (Trumpet), Phil Donnelly (Double Bass), Albert Gaza (Tenor Sax/Clarinet) and Elliott Henshaw (Drums). It’s so hard to encapsulate the specific sounds that Billie Holiday could make with her voice, but occasionally Nina manages it on Don’t Explain and All of Me.  Nina’s rich, mellifulous tones reminded me more of Sarah Vaughan, a contemporary and sometime rival of Billie Holiday.

Despite her continuing popularity and influence on today’s pop singers, sadly the 1200 seat theatre was only about a quarter full.  I think it would perhaps have more impact in a smaller theatre, where the intimate nature of the story could be more fully appreciated.

The tour continues to:
8th April The Churchill Theatre, Bromley
9th April New Wimbledon Theatre
16th April Grimsby Auditorium
17th April Grand Opera House, York
1st May New Victoria Theatre
8th May New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

Reviewed By:
Yvonne Delahaye
1st April 2014



1 Comment

  • Cameron Lowe
    by Cameron Lowe 4 years ago
    Thanks, Yvonne. A shame that such a legendary performer's biopic only reached a limited audience.
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