Anita O’Day was hip before most people knew what it meant. She was also unique, with an exuberance that when combined with a natural talent for improvisation as well as a natural rhythmic sense blended into a seamless style, whether she was singing with a big band as she did in her early days or a simple piano or trio accompaniment.
“Anita, you’ve got a million dollars’ worth of talent and no class.” – Joe Glasser, her booking agent
Born in Chicago, Illinois in October 1919 Anita left home as soon as she was able; it was a far from happy place in which she felt unloved by her mother, having already been deserted by her father. She entered a walkathon contest in Muskegon, Michigan when she was just fourteen; walkathon was essentially a euphemism for a marathon dance contest, the last pair standing being the winner. These contests eventually gave her a chance to sing and in 1936 she left the contest circuit to perform in various bars and clubs in Chicago including the Off Beat by 1938
In 1939 Gene Krupa caught her act at the Three Deuces in Chicago and told Anita that if and when his singer Irene Daye quit his band the job was hers. The call finally came in 1941 and she recorded with Krupa’s band for the first time in March 1941. A couple of months later she recorded ‘Let Me Off Up Town’ with trumpeter Roy Eldridge singing with Anita on this novelty hit that cracked the Billboard best sellers list and established her name in the USA.
When Krupa’s group broke up in 1943. O’Day had short stints with Woody Herman and Stan Kenton’s bands, but after the relaxed, more informal musical style of the drummer’s band she struggled to fit into the rigid non-improvisational charts style of the two bandleaders. During her time with Kenton she appeared in the short film, “Artistry in Rhythm” in 1944. She then rejoined Krupa for a year, but it was by this time falling foul of the declining big band business.
She then quit to work on her own and recorded for a number of different labels, but the challenge for Anita is that they wanted hit records while she was very much the jazz purist. Despite this she did a fabulous version of ‘How High the Moon” for Signature Records that demonstrated her phenomenal abilities as a scat singer.
Away from music Anita’s life was troubled, she and her husband were arrested for possession of marijuana in 1947 and sentenced to three months in jail. By September of the following year things were back on track and she sang with Count Basie’s band at the Royal Roost in New York City to rave reviews.
In 1951 she was signed to Norgran Records and recorded her first album, Anita O’Day Sings Jazz in January 1952, accompanied by the Ralph Burns Orchestra that included her old friend Roy Eldridge on trumpet; it later came out as The Lady Is A Tramp on Verve in 1957. It is quintessential O’Day – superb material, most all of which is well known that gets a modernist make-over to create a unique jazz scape. But just as things seemed to be back on track, career-wise, she was one again arrested for possession of marijuana, but this time found not guilty.
The following March, she was arrested for possession of heroin. After a protracted court case Anita was sentenced to six months in jail. Not long after her release in February 1954, she began work on, Songs by Anita O’Day for Norgran, later reissued as An Evening with Anita O’Day on Verve, for which she was accompanied by a quartet featuring either Barney Kessel or Tal Farlow. On one of her dozen 0r s0 memorable recordings for Verve, Anita was backed by Buddy Bregman and an orchestra that again included Barney Kessel and Tal Farlow, along with pianist, Paul Smith and Milt Bernhart the trombonist who played the memorable solo on Sinatra’s ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin.’
In January 1956 she recorded ‘I’m With You’ and ‘The Rock And Roll Waltz’ with Buddy Bregman’s Orchestra for what became the first single release by Verve Records. In February two more singles were recorded and the following month she reunited with Gene Krupa’s band to record another single, ‘Boogie Blues’, before recording the album ‘Pick Yourself Up With Anita O’Day.’
In 1958 she appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and caused a sensation as can be seen when she performs ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ and ‘Tea For Two’ on the film, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day”. Ironically, she herself admits she was on heroin that day but it was still, in her view, one of the best days of her life. The following year she made a cameo appearance in “The Gene Krupa Story”, a biopic about her former boss. She also toured Europe with Benny Goodman where the notoriously tricky bandleader got fed up with being upstaged by Anita and gradually cut her numbers down to just two by the end of the tour.
She continued recording for Verve and among the standout records is the Creed Taylor produced, All The Sad Young Men recorded in 1961 after Norman Granz had sold Verve to MGM. The big band setting with charts by a young Gary McFarland it proved both challenging for Anita, but very rewarding for the listener. Anita O’Day and The Three Sounds was recorded in October 1962 just after the Three Sounds had left Blue Note and O’Day was about to finish recording for Verve after almost twenty albums. On the album the band plays four instrumentals, including ‘Someday My Prince Will Come,’ and ‘Blues By Five’. It’s an album well worth investigating.
In 1968 she nearly died of a drug overdose and yet despite being written off many times, she seemed to pull comeback after comeback out of the bag, most notably at the Berlin Jazz festival in 1970 having finally kicked both booze and drugs. Throughout the 1970s she recorded frequently in Japan where she was, and remains, hugely popular.
In 1981 she wrote her autobiography, High Times, Hard Times which should be read by everyone with an interest in jazz. It helps to explain many of Anita’s issues, but at no time does she shy away from the truth of her difficulties. She continued to record sporadically right up until 2005 when she finished an album called Indestructible that came out the following year, which was also the year of her passing. ‘Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby’ that featured on the album was used in the movie, “Shortbus”.
Anita O’Day was one of the greatest female jazz singers of the twentieth-century and who knows whether, without some of her drug related problems, her career may have been different. No matter she should be revered and her memory honored. She died, aged 87, from cardiac arrest while recovering in hospital from pneumonia.