Anita O'Day (October 18, 1919 – November 23, 2006) was an American jazz singer. Many place her among the greatest female jazz singers in a group that includes Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter.
Born Anita Belle Colton, O'Day was admired for her sense of rhythm and dynamics, and her early big band appearances shattered the traditional image of the "girl singer". Refusing to pander to any female stereotype, O'Day presented herself as a "hip" jazz musician, wearing a band jacket and skirt as opposed to an evening gown. She changed her surname from Colton to O'Day, pig Latin for "dough," slang for money.
O'Day, along with Mel Tormé, is often grouped with the West Coast Cool school of jazz. Like Tormé, O'Day had some training in jazz drums (courtesy of her first husband Don Carter); her longest musical collaboration was with John Poole, a skilled jazz drummer whose career was severely curtailed by his heroin habit. While maintaining a central core of hard swing, O'Day's considerable skills in improvisation of rhythm and melody put her squarely among the pioneers of bebop; indeed, a staple of her live act in the 1950s was a smooth cover of "Four" by Miles Davis. She cited Martha Raye as the primary influence on her vocal style, although she also expressed admiration for Mildred Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. O'Day's soft, slightly raspy alto voice bore a strong resemblance to that of a saxophone. That unique sound, combined with her strong percussive drive, allowed her to utilize her skills in scat singing to meld seamlessly into jazz orchestras as a wordless instrument; her cover of Woody Herman's "Four Brothers" is an excellent example. Another key example of her improvisational skills and rhythmic surety is her cover of "Them There Eyes" with Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson; the song is laid out at a furiously fast tempo, but O'Day pushes the lyrics out at full speed for one chorus, scats another at a Cannonball Adderley pace, then playfully paraphrases the lyrics at half-tempo for her last chorus. O'Day's song interpretations typically reflected a sly, playful sensibility (see, for example, her cover of "An Occasional Man" with Cal Tjader's band, a much more sex-kittenish interpretation than that of Peggy Lee, among others).
O'Day always maintained that the accidental excision of her uvula during a childhood tonsillectomy left her incapable of vibrato, as well as unable to maintain long phrases. That botched operation, she claimed, forced her to develop a more percussive style based on short notes and rhythmic drive. However, when she was in good voice she demonstrated surprising skill at stretching long notes with strong crescendos and a telescoping vibrato, e.g. her stunning live version of "Sweet Georgia Brown" at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, captured in Bert Stern's film Jazz on a Summer's Day: . Noteworthy is that one can hear on her records that her prominent upper teeth sometimes lead to her articulation of the "B" and the "P" as a "W" (f.i. Sweet Georgia "Wrown").
O'Day's cool, backbeat-based singing style was strongly influential on many other female singers of the late swing and bebop eras, including June Christy, Chris Connor and even less jazz-oriented performers such as Doris Day.
O'Day's long-term problems with heroin and alcohol addiction and her often erratic behavior related to those problems earned her the nickname "The Jezebel of Jazz".
When Krupa's band broke up after his possession of marijuana arrest in 1943, O'Day joined Woody Herman for a month-long gig at the Hollywood Palladium, followed by two weeks at the Orpheum. Unwilling to tour with another big band, she left Herman after the Orpheum engagement and finished out the year as a solo artist. Despite her initial misgivings about the compatibility of their musical styles, she let herself be persuaded to join Stan Kenton's band in April 1944. During her eleven months with Kenton, O'Day recorded 21 sides, both transcription and commercial, and appeared in a Universal Pictures short Artistry in Rhythm (1944). "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine" became a huge seller and put Kenton's band on the map. She also appeared in one soundie with Kenton, performing "I'm Going Mad for a Pad" and "Tabby the Cat". O'Day later said, "My time with Stanley helped nurture and cultivate my innate sense of chord structure." In 1945 she rejoined Krupa's band and stayed almost a year. The reunion, unfortunately, yielded only ten sides. On two of these ("That Feeling in the Moonlight" and "Harriet") O'Day shared the mike with Buddy Stewart, an excellent bop-tinged singer whose promising career was cut short by an early death when he got out of his car to help a motorist in distress in 1950, and unfortunately was promptly run over. After leaving Krupa late in 1946, O'Day once again became a solo artist.
Her first album, Anita O'Day Sings Jazz (reissued as The Lady Is a Tramp), was recorded in 1952 for the newly established Norgran Records (it was also the label's first LP). The album was a critical success and further boosted her popularity. In October 1952 O'Day was again arrested for possession of marijuana, but found not guilty. The following March, she was arrested for possession of heroin. The case dragged on for most of 1953; O'Day was finally sentenced to six months in jail. Not long after her release from jail on February 25, 1954, she began work on her second album, Songs by Anita O'Day (reissued as An Evening with Anita O'Day). She recorded steadily throughout the fifties, accompanied by small combos and big bands. In person, O'Day was generally backed by a trio which included the drummer with whom she would work for the next 40 years, John Poole.
As a live performer O'Day also began performing in festivals and concerts with such musicians as Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Dinah Washington, George Shearing, Cal Tjader, and Thelonious Monk. She appeared in the documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day, filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival which increased her popularity; she admitted later that she was "high on heroin during the concert, and she was unaware of being filmed."
The following year O'Day made a cameo appearance in The Gene Krupa Story, singing "Memories of You". Late in 1959 she toured Europe with Benny Goodman. O'Day wrote in her 1981 autobiography that when Goodman's attempts to upstage her failed to diminish the audience's enthusiasm, he cut all but two of her numbers from the show.
After the Goodman fiasco, O'Day went back to touring as a solo artist. She recorded infrequently after the expiration of her Verve contract in 1962 and her career seemed over when she nearly died of a heroin overdose in 1968. After kicking the habit, she made a comeback at the 1970 Berlin Jazz Festival. She also appeared in the films Zig Zag (1970) and The Outfit (1974). She resumed making live and studio albums, many recorded in Japan, and several were released on her own label, Emily Records.
O'Day spoke candidly about her drug addiction in her 1981 memoir High Times, Hard Times.
In 2005, her version of the standard, Sing, Sing, Sing was remixed by RSL and was included in the compilation album Verve Remixed 3, and 2006 saw her first album release in 13 years, entitled Indestructible!.