On the cover of her 1960 album Incomparable!, a young and glamorous Anita O’Day wears an iridescent shade of green eyeliner. “And I still wear it,” she recently said over the phone from her Hollywood apartment. She’s not much of a talker, she admits, but she surely is a singer. While she isn’t the busiest woman in jazz, she is certainly one of the busiest 83-year-olds in jazz.
Last month, she packed the room at the Derby, a small but ritzy Los Angeles jazz club. Her dramatic life story is being developed as a feature film entitled Nightbird. Robbie Cavolina, her manager who also is writing the screenplay, says Catherine Keener, Beverly D'Angelo and Rosanna Arquette are on the short list of actresses to star. Her new record label, Kayo Stereophonic, is preparing her first complete album in ten years. The still-untitled project, a big band affair with arrangements by Bob Kaye, will feature chestnuts such as “Lover Come Back to Me”, “I Cried For You” and “S’Wonderful”. Ms. O’Day will also return to New York to debut at Iridium Jazz Club for three nights beginning February 14th.
Almost as famous for her arrests and drug use as she is for her exquisite singing, she chronicled her life in the 1981 book, High Times, Hard Times, which went on to become one of the great jazz autobiographies. It follows her through triumphant sold-out concerts and legendary recordings, but also through lonely one-nighters, endlessly flowing cocktails and other details about the woman dubbed the “Jezebel of jazz”. Like all the great vocalists, Ms. O’Day’s sound is completely unique and instantly recognizable. She takes liberties with a song, but somehow always preserves its essential qualities. She uses her low, husky voice and sly, sexy phrasing like a bandleader, suddenly shifting the melody with a cock of her head or changing the tempo with a kick of her leg. If these moves sound all too familiar, consider that O’Day was the first songbird to use them.
She spins through lyrics a mile a minute on “Them There Eyes” from 1957’s Anita Sings The Most, and purrs out a torchy ballad like “Angel Eyes” from her 1960 album Waiter, Make Mine Blues. She embraced the saucy latin rhythms of “Peel Me A Grape” on Time for Two, her 1962 collaboration with Cal Tjader, yet was quietly reflective, looking back on a rewarding and challenging career in the title song of her 1975 album A Song For You, one of the highlights of her later years.
Born Anita Belle Colton in 1919, O’Day got her start singing at the Off-Beat, a tiny club in her native Chicago. There she met bandleader and drummer Gene Krupa; she joined his band in 1941. Early career highlights included a smash hit with trumpeter Roy Eldridge, and being cited by Down Beat as “New Star of the Year”. When a drug bust broke up the Krupa outfit, stints with the Woody Herman and Stan Kenton bands followed.
Ms. O’Day’s solo career peaked with the legendary years with Verve Records, from about 1952 to 1962. Anita, her debut album with the label, was the fledging label’s first recording. As she recounts, producer Norman Granz “was really the lucky cat. He got all my good stuff. I was the right age and had it all together. You know?” She looks back fondly on those sessions, remembering the roar of the huge orchestras and the thrill of making music with the best arrangers and musicians (this period is collected on the Mosaic Records set The Complete Anita O’Day Clef/Verve Sessions).
“We tried never to do the same thing over again,” she says about her ‘70s albums, many on her own label, Emily Records. Often these albums were recorded live and featured many of the songs audiences associated with her – “Honeysuckle Rose”, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” to name a few. True to form, she never sang a song the same way twice.
Now living in a comfortable retirement community, O’Day rises every morning at 4:30 am for long walks. Other times she drives around in her 1986 Buick LeSabre that, at her request, was recently painted bright gold, the windows tinted jet black. Afternoons are often spent at the racetrack, betting on her favorite horses.
Ms. O’Day’s vitality is even more impressive after realizing she is one of the few ladies of the classic jazz era still performing. And after her years on the road and in the studio, her firecracker personality and vocal virtuosity will still be ablaze on stage. She’s looking forward to going back to work. “I just like to have a job,” she explains. “Me out in the middle of the stage and a band in back of me. That’s about all you can do.”
The First Time I Saw Anita O’Day