The Singer's Spirit
©Lisa Houston 2022
How does my twelve-year-old niece know how old Olivia Newton John was when she starred in Grease? Or how old Shirley Temple was when she made The Little Colonel?
“Google!” She says, enthusiastically.
I don’t think she got it from me, but Aunt Lisa also loves reading singers bios online. Leaving aside that the Internet isn’t always a reliable source, it has never been easier to see the entire arc of a performer’s lifetime. Come across a singer you like? In five minutes you can know where she’s from, where she went to school, how her career began, and ended.
What’s the use of reading these bios? Well, if we so choose, there is a plethora of ready-made morality tales for us to study and reflect upon. We can see not just a pinnacle of success, but what happened after, or didn’t. Billie Holiday, Callas, Piaf, Amy Winehouse, Judy Garland. These stories we know, especially because of their tragic endings. Others we hold in godlike status for long lives celebrated as great divas. But many singers’ stories are complex. Neither triumphs nor disasters, they are difficult and celebratory, sometimes inspiring, other times discouraging. One such story, is that of Lillian Roth, born on this day, December 13th, in 1910.
Lillian Roth was aggressively groomed by her parents to be a child actor and suffered greatly emotionally as a result. She shot to a degree of celebrity, struggled with alcoholism, fell into obscurity, became a celebrated author, and then returned to some success as a performer before her death from a stroke in 1980.
I discovered her recently, watching an episode of the old game show, “What’s My Line” from the 50’s. I was struck by her charisma and genial nature.
Reading up on her life, one sees a huge gap of dates in her movie roles, but it is during that absence that she made her greatest mark in film. At a time when celebrities rarely if ever spoke of addiction, Lillian Roth wrote a tell-all bestselling autobiography, chronicling her struggles with alcohol. The hugely popular book was made into the 1955 film, “I’ll Cry Tomorrow, starring the fabulous Susan Hayward. Hayward was nominated for an Oscar for the role.
I don’t want to write much more. I just wanted to highlight these two videos for you, the one of the shining, bright young woman, the other of the much older woman showing resilience and strength of spirit. (It makes me think of Elaine Stritch and her wonderful rendition of “I’m Still Here.”)
Like my niece, I will continue to be fascinated reading performers’ life stories, and I’ll take them to heart. If nothing else, they show us that life is long, if you’re lucky.
Singers so often get focused on the next performance, or the next part, especially this time of year when many singers are busy, busy, busy with holiday gigs. But once in a while we should all remember to take the long view.
To take care of the singer, as well as the song.