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Dee Dee Bridgewater sings tribute to Billie Holiday

Singer Dee Dee Bridgewater. Courtesy Decca Label Group

Singer Dee Dee Bridgewater. Courtesy Decca Label Group

Concert preview
“To Billie with Love: A Celebration of Lady Day”
8 p.m. Sat., Feb. 13. Rialto Center for the Arts. 80 Forsyth St. N.W., Atlanta. 404-413-9849,,

By Adrianne Murchison

There is little doubt Billie Holiday would be intrigued by Dee Dee Bridgewater, the award-winning singer-actress who has portrayed Holiday onstage.

Like Holiday, Bridgewater has a certain verve that sets her apart from others. Yet she is lauded for the way she literally envelops singers that she pays tribute to, such as Ella Fitzgerald or Holiday.

Bridgewater has felt a special affinity for Holiday over the years.

She sings some of Holiday’s famously recorded songs in “To Billie with Love: A Celebration of Lady Day” at 8 p.m. Sat., Feb 13 at the Rialto Center for the Arts. The concert is a preview of Bridgewater’s album “Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee,” due for release March 2.

The late singer was born Eleanora Fagan and chose “Billie Holiday” as her stage name. At the end of her short life, Holiday had suffered from heart and liver disease, and from years of drug abuse.

In 1986, Bridgewater learned French to portray the jazz legend in “Lady Day” onstage in Paris. The next year in London, she performed the role in English and was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical.

She has optioned the play from playwright Stephen Stahl and hopes to bring it to Broadway.

Born in Memphis, Bridgewater grew up in Flint, Mich., and lives outside Las Vegas in Henderson, Nev.

She recently discussed her connection to Holiday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Q: What first drew you to Billie Holiday?

A: I first read her ghost-written autobiography when I was 19. Somehow I could just identify with her life and the suffering she felt.

Q: What is it about her voice that sets her apart?

A: I understand why musicians considered her to be a musician. Because even though she didn’t have a lot of range, what she did with her voice was really amazing. And her phrasing was like that of an instrument. She was totally authentic.

Q: How hard is to play Billie Holiday?

A: In Paris one night as the show went on I was sick and nauseous. I was able to weave it into the play because as it goes on she is supposed to be high [on heroin] and sick. When I finished the play I couldn’t even get undressed. I was just throwing up.

Q: What did you think happened?

A: The son of the man who owned the theater would drive [me] home every night. He came in and looked at me and says, “Oh my God, you’re going through heroin withdrawal.” I’ve never done heroin before in my life. I wasn’t doing any kind of drugs. It was the weirdest experience. And then in London‚ I could feel her presence take over my body. It was to the point that I received fan mail addressed to Billie Holiday. [At the end of the play’s run in Australia] I couldn’t find my own voice. It was all Billie.

Q: Describe the album and Rialto show?

A: I’m really doing it my way, with my voice. When I do hints of her phrasing I’m doing it deliberately. I wanted it to be a joyful celebration of Billie because she had an amazing sense of humor. She was an entire human being and not just the maudlin thing that has been cast of her. Anyone who knew her would tell you she was truly funny.

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