An impeccable homage
to Billie Holiday

Upstairs Bar & Grill hosted Ranee Lee as Lady Day in her last public performance

By Byron Toben

June 12, 2024

Billie Holiday, one of the greatest jazz vocalists, performed her final public performance in 1959 at Philadelphia’s Emerson Bar & Grill. She died only four months later. That performance became the subject of this 1986 one-person play by Lanie Robertson that was produced on and off Broadway as well as in Atlanta, Toronto, London, U.K., and 30 years ago, at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre.

Thanks to Montreal’s Upstairs Bar & Grill for converting its cozy pub into a stand-in as Emerson’s for four nights in early June to revive that show locally. And who better to play Billie Holiday than our multi-talented singer, actor, and writer, Ranee Lee.

Ranee Lee

Image: courtesy of Ranee Lee

During the performance, food and beverage service was halted by owner Joel Giberovitch so as not to disrupt the on-stage talk and song. The 50 attendees in the audience largely complied. Ms. Lee, draped in a white satin gown, related Lady Day’s difficult life born to a teen couple who, when they married in 1918, “He was 18, she was 15, and I was 3.”

Lady Day recounts her influence from the older great vocalist Bessie Smith and her appearances with Count Basie and other bands.

Ms. Lee was accompanied by four on-stage musicians (piano, drums, bass and guitar), introduced in the names of the original 1959 ensemble.

Despite some alcohol and drug problems and a short jail sentence, she managed three sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall and many hit records. Among the titles in this show are What a Little Moonlight Can Do, God Bless the Child and Strange Fruit. Lady Day’s phrasing and pauses give her songs a personal touch beyond the mere words, reminding me of Frank Sinatra’s crediting Ella Fitzgerald for influencing his delivery.

Ms. Lee was accompanied by four on-stage musicians… introduced in the names of the original 1959 ensemble.

Spotted in the audience the night I attended was the Centaur Theatre’s artistic and executive director Eda Holmes. Is this a portent this show might re-appear at the Centaur again? For that matter, I suggest that the Segal Centre, where Ms. Lee is now a board member, consider it as well.

The Upstairs, which, despite the name, is downstairs at 1254 McKay, has its own little jazz fest from June 27 to July 1.

Feature image: William P. Gottlieb, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since-terminated websites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner, and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.

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