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Scat's First Lady

Anita O'Day gets her due in new boxed set

If VH-1 ever decides to dedicate a portion of its "Behind the Music" series to jazz, it would be well-served to produce an episode on Anita O'Day. Her story is filled with all the career rises and falls and personal tabloid trash the series' producers crave. That her music was influential and is still relevant makes her story all the more important.

O'Day is an overlooked figure in jazz history, someone often relegated to second- or third-tier status. She's rarely mentioned in the same breath as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan or Billie Holiday, though she could certainly swing with those ladies. She was one of the finest scat singers of her era and responsible for the cool-school style of singing. But she disappeared from the jazz scene in the early '60s, and once she was out of sight, she was out of mind.

A Chicago native, O'Day was born Anita Bell Colton in 1919 but changed her last name in her teens for show business. She performed in the dance marathon craze (at least when truant officers weren't intervening). She became a singer in 1936 after having a religious vision in which Jesus Christ himself promised her a career as a singer (a vision she says happened while she was exhausted from one of the dance contests).

Anita O'Day used her voice sometimes as one particular instrument: a drum.
Anita O'Day used her voice sometimes as one particular instrument: a drum.

In 1941 O'Day joined Gene Krupa's Orchestra and immediately established herself as a headstrong free spirit, most notably by refusing to wear the ballroom gowns singers traditionally wore, instead insisting on a band uniform with a short skirt. Today that hardly seems noteworthy, but in 1941 it was revolutionary. It also reflected her desire to be not a singer in front of a band, but one of its members.

Shortly after hiring O'Day, Krupa enlisted the services of trumpeter/singer Roy Eldridge. He and O'Day had a natural chemistry, one that sold records. Their duet, "Let Me Off Uptown," became a million-dollar single. O'Day also had other hits with Krupa, notably, "Thanks for the Boogie Ride" and "Bolero at the Savoy," and in 1942 she was named Down Beat's New Artist of the Year and was voted one of the top five big-band singers.

Krupa's Orchestra disbanded in 1943, when Krupa was convicted on drug charges. O'Day worked briefly with Woody Herman and in 1944 joined Stan Kenton's Orchestra. Though she wasn't particularly fond of Kenton's intellectual charts, she had a hit with "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine." She returned to Krupa's Orchestra in 1945 and had more hits, including "Boogie Blues." She was one of the most popular singers of the swing era, but that would soon change.

In 1946 O'Day left Krupa's band after her first of many nervous breakdowns. Over the next two decades, her alcohol and marijuana use gave way to abuse of harder substances. While she tried to make a go of her solo career, the next six years proved uneventful commercially. By 1952, at age 33, she looked like little more than a footnote in swing history.

Enter jazz impresario and producer Norman Granz. Recognizing O'Day's unique talent, Granz started recording her in 1952 on his small independent label Clef, and later on his Norgran label. When he started Verve Records, one of the most storied of all jazz labels, in 1955, he took O'Day with him. She enjoyed the most artistically rewarding period of her career and became one of the most popular jazz singers of the '50s. Granz had her performing in festivals with Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, George Shearing and Thelonious Monk.

At the same time, though, O'Day's personal life started a downward spiral. Her heroin addiction led to overdoses, prison sentences and numerous illegal and botched abortions. (O'Day says she can't recall how many she had.) By the early '60s her addiction had destroyed her career. Years later it would almost take her life.

O'Day didn't kick the habit until the late '60s and really didn't surface again until the '70s, when she made a triumphant appearance at the Berlin Jazz Festival. Subsequently her recording output has been sporadic, and so have her performances.

The Complete Anita O'Day Verve/Clef Sessions is a nine-CD collection of all of the music O'Day recorded during her artistic peak from 1952 to 1962 on the Clef, Norgran and Verve labels, which amounts to more than 20 albums of material. This outstanding chronological document reveals that O'Day belongs among the jazz elite. A versatile vocalist, she was one of the few singers who successfully moved from swing to bebop and never sounded dated. She could excel with big bands and small groups. She could milk a ballad and belt out an up-tempo piece. When it came to scatting, only Ella Fitzgerald was her peer.

O'Day was also one of the most inventive, resourceful singers of the '50s. An incompetent doctor had removed O'Day's uvula during a tonsillectomy when she was young. That mistake made it impossible for her to create vibrato, so she developed a very precise vibratoless delivery, which in turn influenced many singers after her. As a result of the botch, O'Day also had problems holding quarter notes, so she often broke them up into eighth or 16th notes. As O'Day once noted: " 'laaaaaaa' would become 'la-la' or 'la-la-la-la.' " That meant when O'Day held a quarter or half note, it was more dramatic than most singers because it was so unusual-sounding. O'Day compensated for her somewhat limited range by using microtones -- notes between the notes -- to give the impression of a wider range. She also took liberties with the melodies, often changing them after the first verse. She altered tempos, created unique introductions, injected humor into her singing and scatted like a jittery trumpeter.

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