Anita O'Day

Jazz diva with an inimitable style

Saturday 25 November 2006 01:00

Anita Belle Colton (Anita O'Day), jazz singer: born Chicago, Illinois 18 October 1919; married first Don Carter (marriage annulled), second Carl Hoff (marriage dissolved); died Los Angeles 23 November 2006.

'I may disappear sometimes, but I never stop . . . I'm up when I'm up and I'm down when I'm down," Anita O'Day once said. She was the last of the instantly recognisable jazz divas from a group that included Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae. Her singing career, which lasted longer than any other in jazz - more than 60 years - was marked out by extreme highs and lows.

She begins her unusually gripping autobiography, High Times Hard Times (1981), with a ghastly account of being found in a ladies' lavatory after a heroin overdose in 1966:

Dee [her friend] panicked. She jumped up, ran over and rammed the door like a bulldozer. The door gave and she saw me crumpled on the floor with the hypodermic needle still in my arm. She pulled it out and hid the outfit in her dress . . .

. . . at one point the doctors could detect no heartbeat and were just drawing the sheet over my face - in other words I seemed to be dead - when a young doctor ran in with some contraption he used to get my heart started again.

Several times over the years O'Day came close to death from self-neglect. She had started using heroin in 1953 and remained unrepentant. "All the people from years back, they were all on dope," she claimed.

Who was that guy that played the piano? Beethoven. Everybody said " Great, great, great." Well, did you ever read his story? He was on dope! So the normal people, with the normal head and everything, never get too far.

At her best a delightful and agile singer with a unique sense of humour, she had an original and musically literate style that made her impossible for anyone else to copy. Her individuality was emphasised further when, in the early Thirties, a doctor accidentally cut off her uvula whilst taking out her tonsils. This made it difficult for her to sustain notes, and meant that she sang largely without using vibrato. It was rare to hear her hold a long note.

Like Billie Holiday, she would bend lyrics and break or stretch words in a way that was very sexy. She regarded herself as a musician rather than as a singer and wanted to be respected accordingly. To that end, she usually refused to wear glamorous gowns and there were many rows with nightclub owners over the smart suits that she wore on stage.

O'Day had a fast articulation and her deep knowledge of harmony made her superior even to Ella Fitzgerald in exchanging rapid musical ideas with instrumental soloists. Scat singing, the wordless singing at which both women excelled with notable exuberance, is an unlovely form, but it did enable them to stand side by side with the great jazz horn players.

The most renowned example of O'Day's skills in this department and indeed the appearance that was to be considered the high point of her career was in the film Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), a record of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival where she sang "Tea For Two" and "Sweet Georgia Brown ". There have been many failed attempts to copy her speed and vocal acrobatics of that day. Her triumph was completed by the dramatic matching hat and dress she'd bought for the occasion and they, combined with her "hip" mannerisms and beautiful looks, gave her an intense sex appeal. But she could be abrasive with fans, promoters and musicians alike.

Whilst the film brought her universal acclaim and led to an abundance of work in clubs, it was her singing in the recording studios that established her with jazz enthusiasts. A harsh self-critic, she dismissed one of her most popular albums, Anita Sings the Most (1957), recorded with the Oscar Peterson Quartet:

Songs to me are like horse races. We're off and running and if it lays real good in the back stretch you try to win. The only one I really lost was with Oscar Peterson. I lost 12 tunes consecutively.

This album, like the best of her work, was done for the entrepreneur Norman Granz, who rescued O'Day's career in the same way that he had reclaimed that of O'Day's sparring partner, the trumpeter Roy Eldridge, and indeed of many other musicians. O'Day recorded 189 songs for Granz between 1952 and 1962.

In 1941 she had formed a dazzling musical partnership with Eldridge, who, apart from being amongst the top half dozen trumpeters, was also a great jazz singer. It was, like the deep hatred between them offstage, to persist in many reunions over the years.

After a rugged childhood in Chicago which included two abortions, O'Day "was so unhappy about what I'd done with my life, I'd become a falling-down drunk." Born Anita Belle Colton, she had left home when she was 12. She began competing in dance marathons when she was 14. When she started singing at them she took the name O'Day (pig Latin for the "dough" she hoped to make). She started singing in nightclubs when she was 19 and joined the drummer Gene Krupa's big band in 1941.

Eldridge, already an established star, joined a few weeks later. The two recorded a duet, "Let Me Off Uptown" (1941) which became their biggest hit. By now O'Day was one of the foremost exploiters of the contemporary vogue for "hip" mannerisms and she used them so well that they remained a vital part of her presentation until her last performances. She liked to shock her audiences too, and, in the days when such things were considered daring, used to introduce her drummer John Poole to her audiences as "my room mate".

She left Krupa and joined Stan Kenton's band where she stayed from 1944 to 1945, creating more hits with records like "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine". She joined the Woody Herman band for four weeks when it was resident in Los Angeles and infuriated Herman by leaving him when the band went on the road. "He got really mad," she said. "I heard from someone years later that when he was seriously ill Woody was still angry and saying that I left the band without a singer." She returned to Krupa for a year in 1945.

In 1947, she was sent to jail for possession of marijuana. Then, in 1953, she was convicted of possessing heroin, although she claimed that she had been framed.

The success of the records with Krupa and Kenton encouraged her to take a solo career and this she followed until the end of her life, making exceptions for the reunions with Eldridge and an unlikely European tour as the singer with the Benny Goodman band in 1959. It was in that year that she toured in the United States as part of a bill with the Humphrey Lyttelton band. Her pianist became ill and Lyttelton generously agreed for her to use his fine pianist Ian Armit. "Did you see what they've done to me?" she wailed to Thelonious Monk, who was also on the tour. "They've given me a Dixieland pianist."

The heroin addiction lasted until she kicked the habit on her own in 1968. It was simply part of a life that had included two failed marriages, arrests and incarceration for drug offences, alcoholism, nervous breakdowns, broken bones and serious illnesses.

In November 1996, when she was 76, she fell over a dog outside her trailer home in Palm Springs and broke her arm. "The Scotch did me in," she said. "I was 86 pounds. I laid up there and drank and didn't eat. Then I fell down the steps." The arm was set badly and resulted in pneumonia, a life-threatening infection and a series of operations. She stayed in eight different nursing homes and was confined to a wheelchair.

Determined to walk again, she began a comeback at a tribute to her held in Los Angeles in May 1998 but, although she continued walking and working in clubs (including a visit to Pizza on the Park in London in 2004) and recording until last year, she travelled more in hope than likely achievement.

Steve Voce

I fell in love at first sight and sound with Anita O'Day, writes James Kirkup. It was in 1960, in the dazzlingly exciting movie Jazz on a Summer's Day.

When in the early Sixties I was invited to teach English Literature and what they called "Creative Writing" at Amherst College, Massachusetts, I seized every opportunity to visit the jazz scenes in Boston and New York. It was in New York that I finally met Anita, when she opened at the Half Note after a long absence from the jazz scene during years of breakdown caused by drugs and drink.

I arrived early and took a seat on the counter running along the front of the small stage where I enjoyed a couple of highballs and chatted with her accompanist. To my great joy, Anita appeared, looking very chic and fit, and we started talking about her career as a singer, which had begun so long ago, when she was just a young girl and sang during the seemingly interminable dance marathons and walkathons that were for a while all the rage during the Depression era.

As the club began to fill up, she had to get ready for her performance, but, before she left, she asked me, "What would you like to hear?" The only song I could think of had a title that I chose as a shy tribute to the singer: "It Had To Be You". Regretfully, she had to turn me down - she was not allowed by the management to alter her programme. However, when her pianist struck up the number for her entry, it was my request, and everyone applauded. We stayed up all night, until I had to catch the first Greyhound Bus back to Amherst at 6am for my 9am class.

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