Called “one of the finest singers to emerge from the swing era” by Scott Yanow in the All Music Guide to Jazz, Anita O’Day has been hailed as one of the most distinctive voices in the history of jazz. She advanced from a Billie Holiday-type style to her own inventive technique that made her equally adept at interpreting songs as written and improvising with a flair matched by few. O’Day was also the chief inspiration of many famed singers who came to prominence in the 1940s, including June Christy, Chris Connor, and Helen Merrill. She has had one of the longest active careers among jazz singers, now spanning over 60 years. Her tenure in front of the microphone is all the more incredible considering that she was addicted to heroin during many of her peak years.
New York Times writer Stephen Holden reported that during a 1995 performance at Rainbow and Stars in New York City, O’Day remarked: “I’m not a singer; I’m a song stylist.” Although her singing approach was inspired by Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Martha Raye, O’Day eventually developed her own style that others found difficult to imitate. Some of her most inventive traits as a singer were “a manner of skipping in front of and behind the beat, and the extensive use of melisma [a group of notes or tones sung on one syllable],” according to Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler in The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies. O’Day also cut a distinctive profile on stage in her early career by appearing in a band jacket and short skirt rather than the more formal dress that was virtually demanded of female singers of her time, causing her to be regarded as an early feminist.
Anita Belle Colton came upon her career as a singer somewhat accidentally. She joined a burlesque show as a teenager, and then was asked to replace a singer who had laryngitis. During the Depression she endured an exhausting tenure as a contestant in dance marathons, at which time she assumed the stage name of O’Day. When she was 19 she scratched out a living by becoming a singing waitress and dice-girl, finally landing some jobs as a singer with local Chicago groups. One of her key venues as a performer was the Off-Beat, a night spot frequented by musicians such as the drummer and band leader Gene Krupa.
A singing job with the Max Miller combo at the Three Deuces club in Chicago gave O’Day the exposure she needed, and two years later she replaced Irene Daye as a singer for Krupa’s band. Critical to her success at this time was the addition to the band of trumpeter and vocalist Roy Eldridge, who shared a strong chemistry with O’Day on stage. The two were featured as singers on the recording of “Let Me Off Uptown,” which was one
Born Anita Belle Colton December 18, 1919, in Chicago, IL.
Began singing as a teenager as a replacement for ill singer in burlesque show, 1930s; worked as a dance-a-thon contestant, 1930s; changed name to O’Day while working as a singing waitress and dice-girl, 1938; sang in Off-Beat club, Chicago, IL, late 1930s; began singing with Max Miller combo at Chicago’s Three Deuces, 1939; joined Gene Krupa’s band, 1941; had first hit, “Let Me Off Uptown,” with Krupa band, 1941; left Krupa band to get married, 1943; sang briefly with Woody Herman’s band, 1943; joined Stan Kenton’s band, 1944; rejoined Krupa band, 1945; began recording as soloist with Signature label, 1947; sang with various small bands and studio orchestras, 1950s; began long association with Verve label, 1952; started working regularly with drummer John Poole, 1954; received rave reviews for performance in Newport Jazz Festival, 1958; appeared in The Gene Krupa Story, 1959; made first tour of Japan, early 1960s; almost died from heroin overdose, 1967; made comeback at Berlin Jazz Festival, 1971; toured England and Europe, 1970-71; formed own record company, Anita O’Day Records (later renamed Emily Records), 1972; performed at Monterey Jazz Festival, 1974; sang at Carnegie Hall and various super clubs in New York, NY, 1974; had special performance at Carnegie Hall to commemorate her 50 years as a singer, 1985; continued to perform and record, 1990s. Film appearances include The Glenn Miller Story, 1959; Zig-Zag, 1971; The Outfit, 1974.
Addresses: Record company —Verve Records, 825 8th Ave., 26th fl., New York, NY 10019.
of the first interracial vocal duets on record. This single, which was a major hit, and O’Day’s rendition of “That’s What You Think” helped make the young singer a hot new star in the early 1940s. In 1941 her new fame was confirmed by Down Beat magazine naming her “New Star of the Year,” and the following year the magazine cited her as one of the top five big band singers.
After getting married in 1943, O’Day left the Krupa band and moved to California to explore other options as a performer. She joined up with Woody Herman’s band for a short period, then quit because she was unable to cope with the band’s exhausting schedule of consecutive one-night stands. At that point her manager advised her to sing with Stan Kenton’s band, which she did in 1944. More accolades came her way in the mid 1940s, among them designations of best big-band singer by Down Beat and “outstanding new star” by Esquire. Although her fame grew with Kenton thanks to her renditions of songs such as “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine,” O’Day was not pleased with Kenton’s highly controlled approach. As Len Lyons and Don Perlo noted in Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters, “O’Day was uncomfortable with the rigid structure of the music and highbrow attitude of the group.”
Her eagerness for a more freewheeling atmosphere brought O’Day back to Krupa’s band in 1945, which by then had the services of the bebop-style pianist Dodo Marmaros and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco. After leaving Krupa in 1946, O’Day explored her potential as a solo artist. Her first solo work was recorded on the Signature label in 1947, and on her own she began to demonstrate her exceptional versatility. In his review of Anita O’Day 1949–1950 on Tono, Yanow wrote that the singer “handles the wide variety of songs (ranging from bop and dated novelties to calypso and Tennessee Waltz’) with humor and swing, mostly uplifting the occasionally indifferent material.”
Starting in 1950, O’Day sang with a number of small bands, and worked as a session singer in the studio. Her career received a major boost after she signed on with the new Verve jazz label produced by Norman Granz. She hit her peak in 1955 with Anita, about which Yanow stated: “O’Day is heard near the peak of her powers on such songs as ‘You’re the Top,’ ‘Honeysuckle Rose,’ an emotional rendition of ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,’ and ‘As Long as I Live.’” Many of her Verve recordings in the mid 1950s featured Monty Budwig on bass, Tal Farlow or Barney Kessel on guitar, and Jimmy Rowles on piano. Since O’Day’s rhythmic style was so responsive to percussion, it was no surprise when she hooked up with drummer John Poole as her regular accompanist in 1954 for a professional relationship that lasted 32 years.
As her fame spread during the 1950s, O’Day was in demand for festivals and concerts that featured the greatest jazz stars of her day—including Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, George Shearing, and Thelonious Monk. Many fans and critics have attested that the high point of her career was her performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, which was called “sensational” by Barry Kernfeld in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Her versions of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two” at the Festival brought down the house, and were also preserved in a filmed account of the event.
Although still active on the jazz circuit in the 1960s, O’Day began to suffer heart problems as a result of her long-term heroin addiction. She finally stopped using the drug in 1967 after a near fatal overdose. Her career got back on track with a strong performance at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1970, and she ventured into the business end of her music in 1972 when she formed her own record company, Anita O’Day Records (later known as Emily Records). Many O’Day albums were turned out on her label in the 1970s, and she continued to perform in major festivals and jazz clubs as she approached 60. In 1974 she began appearing frequently at Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills, California, as well as clubs such as Reno Sweeney’s in New York City. Meanwhile, her new releases were often received favorably. In his review of Anita O’Day Live, a recording of a 1975 performance released for the first time in 1993, Scott Yanow said that “the singer is heard in excellent form.”
In 1985 O’Day celebrated her half-century as a singer with a performance in Carnegie Hall. “She still excels at up-tempo rhythms,” remarked Len Lyons and Don Perlo in The Jazz Masters in 1987, confirming that O’Day had aged well. But by the 1990s, her public appearances had become somewhat erratic. Discussing an O’Day performance at Rainbow and Stars in New York City when she was 75 years old, John Holdung wrote in Back Stage, “The voice, while still pure jazz, is now a dim memory possibly best left for recording rather than for public performances in a pricey room.” In his review of 1994’s Rules of the Road, Chris Albertson wrote that the singer “would have been better served leaving us to wonder how she might have sounded today.”
It is likely that Anita O’Day’s extensive lineup of highly regarded albums and performances will always stand tall among the pantheon of great jazz performers. Brian Priestly concluded in Jazz: The Rough Guide that “the many singers who emulated her work, ballads especially, such as June Christy, Chris Connor, and Helen Merrill, came nowhere near to swinging as delightfully as O’Day.”
Anita O’Day 1949-1950, Tono.
Anita, Verve, 1955.
Anita O’Day Sings the Winners, Verve, 1958.
All the Sad Young Men, Verve, 1961.
Anita O’Day Live, Star Line, 1976.
Live at the City, Emily, 1979.
A Song for You, Emily, 1984.
Rules of the Road, Pablo, 1994.
High Times, Hard Times (with George Eells), Corgi, 1983.
Carr, Ian, Digby Fairweather, and Brian Priestley, Jazz: The Rough Guide, The Rough Guides, 1995, pp. 479–480.
Case, Brian, and Stann Britt, revised and updated by Chrissie Murray, The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz, Third Edition, Harmony Books, pp. 140–141.
Cook, Richard, and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP, and Cassette, Penguin Books, 1992, pp. 819–820.
Erlewine, Michael, Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodsta, and Scott Yanow, All Music Guide to Jazz, Second Edition, Miller Freeman Books, 1996, pp. 559–561.
Feather, Leonard, and Ira Gitler, The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies, Horizon Press, 1976, p. 258.
Kernfeld, Barry, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Volume Two, Macmillan, 1988, pp. 264–265.
Lyons, Len, and Don Perlo, Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters, William Morrow, 1989, pp. 399–400.
O’Day, Anita and George Eells, High Times, Hard Times, Corgi, 1983.
Back Stage, July 14, 1995, p. 11.
New York Times, June 30, 1995, p. C20.
Stereo Review, May 1994, p. 90.
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