When Diana Ross chose to make her feature film debut playing the role of Billie Holiday, in the biopic Lady Sings The Blues, released on 12 October 1972, it was a bold move for the Motown queen. She was little more than two years into the official launch of her solo career, and only one of her four post-Supremes albums to date had made the U.S. Top 40.
The soundtrack album from the movie became Diana’s only U.S. No. 1 solo pop album — aptly, on the chart date that would have been Billie’s 58th birthday, 7 April 1973. The double LP featured Ross singing such gems from the tragic singer’s catalogue as “God Bless The Child,” “Strange Fruit” and the title song.
It’s a poignant reminder of Lady Day’s sadly early demise that, when Lady Sings The Blues was released, she had already been gone for some 13 years. The film, and a score album that also featured Michel Legrand and Blinky Williams, undoubtedly helped to revive Holiday’s legacy and to introduce her to an entirely new audience, via one of the biggest stars of the 1970s.
The soundtrack debuted on the Billboard chart at the end of November, 1972, with the film on national release. The record proved to be a slow-burner, making its final move to No. 1 in its 20th week, more than four months later. That was just after Ross, shortlisted for Best Actress In A Leading Role among the film’s five Oscar nominations, had lost out to Liza Minnelli, for her role as Sally Bowles in Cabaret.
The Lady Sings The Blues soundtrack went on to a 54-week stay on the U.S. chart, and proof that it sparked new interest in Billie’s work came with the appearance of no fewer than three Holiday collections on the American charts of the time. The Billie Holiday Story, with recordings from 1944 to 1950, entered in Christmas week, 1972, and reached No. 85, in a 21-week run; Strange Fruit, featuring the years 1939 and 1944, appeared in January, making No. 108; and The Original Recordings, spanning 1935 to 1958, charted in February, rising to No. 135.