I’ve long admired Patti Boulaye’s talent, but for one reason or another have never seen her perform live. So, I was delighted when I heard she was performing her one-woman-show, ‘Billie and Me’, at The Pheasantry.
The evening turned out to be every bit as enjoyable as I’d hoped it would. Patti, impossibly glamorous at 68, sang her favourite Billie Holiday numbers, interspersed with chat about her own life, growing up in Nigeria and the similarities – and differences – between her and her musical idol.
Getting the show off to a swinging start with ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’, Patti explained why she wrote this show. “It’s about the choices we make in life. Ella Fitzgerald had just as bad a start to life as Billie – bud didn’t make the same choices.” Pausing for a moment, she added, “While I was writing my autobiography, ‘The Faith of a Child’, so many artists I admired died: Whitney Houston, George Michael, Prince…they were all adored, but that didn’t seem to help them”. She then sang ‘For You’, to a rapt audience.
Picking up the conversational thread, Patti mused, “Billie and I had different kinds of mothers. Both married extremely young, in their teens, and both were left by their husbands. But that’s where the similarities ended. My mother was formidable…I was the seventh of nine children and she was spiritually and mentally strong. She would do anything to protect her children – whereas Billie’s mother allowed her only child to go into prostitution aged just 14”.
After a moment’s reflection, Patti continued, “When I was very young, a man came to our house while my siblings and I were playing in the compound. He’d come to see my beautiful sister, Maggie – who was like a black Sophia Loren”. Chuckling, she added, “I remember this magnificent-looking man stepping out of a chauffeur-driven Mercedes; we children were dumbfounded. Maggie, a teenager, was actually at school – but we told him she was upstairs, where Mummy was”.
Apparently, this unfortunate man made it as far as the stairs, where he encountered Patti’s mother, asking “Is Maggie here?” Laughing even harder, Patti told us, “She whipped him all the way to the car. It would have been funny, if we hadn’t been living in a war zone – but it was my mother who made me the woman I am”.
Billie Holiday, sadly, did not enjoy that kind of nurturing relationship with her mother. Sadie was able to open a restaurant, thanks to financial assistance from her daughter – yet, when Billie lost all her money, Sadie refused to help. “That’s why Billie wrote ‘God Bless the Child’, one of her most successful songs”, explained Patti, before treating us to a fabulous version of said song.
With the audience nodding heartily in agreement, Patti noted, “You only need to look at other people’s problems, to appreciate what you have. I wrote this next song for my husband and children – and of course for my grandson, who keeps us all busy. This is ‘In My Memory’”.
Continuing on the theme of memories, Patti reflected “Billie and I both made a couple of memories – but I’m sure that, had she made it past the age of 50, Billie would have made many more, if she could have stayed drug-free”.
“You know, we both witnessed many atrocities – her, lynchings, me, people burned alive during the Biafra War. My next song, ‘Strange Fruit’, was written by a white Jewish man. The lyrics interest me because, like Lewis Allan, I’ve seen the dark side of human beings – but Lewis managed to find the light”.
As you can imagine, there was barely a dry eye in the house at the song’s close, as Patti continued ”When I was reading up on Billie, I often wanted to sit her down and have a good talk with her, but I don’t think it would have worked. I would have gone all Nigerian on her!”
Elaborating, Patti stated “Billie had a habit of honing on the reprobate. She was such a strong woman – I can’t understand why she let her men cheat on her the way she did”.
There followed a stunning rendition of ‘Good Morning Heartache’…and then ‘Don’t Explain’ – “a song about a man disappearing for days and coming home with lipstick on his collar. This is what Billie thought about that”.
The interval was in sight, but there was time for a couple more songs: a sublime version of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ (“One of my favourites: Etta James singing about her man cheating on her”) – and a surprise.
“While Billie Holiday was having problems controlling her men, other women were impossible to control – like Carmen, who I played for four years. I scared the bejesus out of my husband! Would you like me to sing a song from Carmen Jones?”
The interval flew by and before we knew it Patti was back on stage, this time sizzling in gold lamé. “Don’t say I don’t dress up for you”, she teased, before introducing her pianist, Alan Rogers: “He’s just finished a tour of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ and is a man in demand”.
Acknowledging that Billie had many fine contemporaries, Patti murmured “While Billie was singing, there were other voices out there, like Bessie Smith. I’m going to sing ‘Kitchen Man’, which is about a lady called Madam Buff’”.
We loved it. “That went down well, for a girl who was going to be a nun”, joked Patti, alluding to her original choice of career. She then introduced us to a singer with whom I was less familiar, Alberta Hunter: “Who was also a comedian. At the age of 84, Alberta wrote this song, called ‘Rough and Ready Man’, about the kind of man she was looking for”.
I wish I could’ve met Alberta Hunter.
Of course, we couldn’t stay away from Billie too long, with Patti observing, “Billie’s style was carefree, with impeccable timing. She sang love songs in a way no one else did – like this one: ‘When a Woman Loves a Man’. And then, upping the tempo: “Here’s a jollier number from Billie – ‘Me, Myself and I’”.
As we approached the end of this enthralling evening, Patti performed another song by Etta James, which “I wish Billie could’ve sung because it would have meant she had found love at last”.
‘At Last’ followed, and it was a true goosebumps moment. “Billie went through experiences we can only imagine, but I hope she’s up in heaven laughing along with us. Frank Sinatra said she was the greatest single influence on him – and that goes for me, too. Billie felt from the heart”.
Smiling at us, Patti concluded: “Frank’s ‘My Way’ talks about the life of an entertainer – and it speaks to me, fully. This is my final song for you”.
The standing ovation was richly-deserved.