Anita O'Day Biography

Anita Belle Colton, 18 October 1919, Chicago, Illinois, USA, d. 23 November 2006, West Hollywood, California, USA. As Anita Colton, in her early teens she scraped a living as a professional Walkathon contestant (marathon dancer). During this period she changed her surname to O’Day. Along with other contestants she was encouraged to sing and during one Walkathon was accompanied by Erskine Tate’s orchestra, an event that made her think that singing might be a better route to showbusiness fame than dancing. By her late teens she had switched to singing and was told by Gene Krupa, who heard her at a Chicago club, that if he ever had a slot for her he would call. In the meantime, she failed an audition with Benny Goodman, who complained that she did not stick to the melody, and upset Raymond Scott, who disliked her scatting - actually, she had momentarily forgotten the words of the song. Eventually Krupa called and O’Day joined the band early in 1941, just a few weeks before Roy Eldridge was also hired. The combination of Krupa, Eldridge and O’Day was potent and the band, already popular, quickly became one of the best of the later swing era. O’Day helped to give the band some of its hit records, notably ‘Let Me Off Uptown’ (also a feature for Eldridge), ‘Alreet’, ‘Kick It’ and ‘Bolero At The Savoy’.

After Krupa folded in 1943, O’Day went with Stan Kenton, recording hits with ‘And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine’ and ‘The Lady In Red’. In 1945 she was back with the re-formed Krupa band for more hit records, including ‘Opus No. 1’. In 1946 O’Day went solo and thereafter remained a headliner. She made a number of fine albums in the 50s, including a set with Ralph Burns in 1952, and made a memorable appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. This performance, at which she sang ‘Tea For Two’ and ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, resplendent in cartwheel hat, gloves, and stoned out of her mind, was captured on film in Jazz On A Summer’s Day (1960).

Drug addiction severely damaged O’Day’s life for many years, although she continued to turn out excellent albums, including 1959’s Cool Heat with Jimmy Giuffre, 1961’s Trav’lin’ Light with Johnny Mandel and Barney Kessel, and 1962’s Time For Two with Cal Tjader. Extensive touring, high living and a punishing lifestyle (not to mention a dozen years of heroin addiction) eventually brought collapse, and she almost died in 1966. Eventually clear of drugs, O’Day continued to tour, playing clubs, concerts and festivals around the world. She recorded less frequently, but thanks to forming her own record company, Emily, in the early 70s, many of the albums that she did make were entirely under her control. In 1985 she played Carnegie Hall in celebration of 50 years in the business, and towards the end of the decade appeared in the UK at Ronnie Scott’s club and at the Leeds Castle Jazz Festival in Kent.

O’Day’s throaty singing voice had great rhythmic drive. Her scat singing and the liberties she took on songs, especially when singing up-tempo, resulted in some remarkable vocal creations. At her peak her diction was exceptional, and even at the fastest tempos she articulated clearly and precisely. On ballads she remained assured and distinctive, and although very much her own woman, her phrasing suggested the influence of Billie Holiday. On stage she displayed enormous rapport with musicians and audience, factors that made some of her studio recordings rather less rewarding than those made in concert. Late in her career some of her performances were marred by problems of pitch but, live at least, she compensated for such difficulties through the sheer force of her personality. Her 1981 autobiography makes for compulsive reading and her memorable performance on Jazz On A Summer Day is how many will have a lasting celluloid snapshot of her.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.