One of the most talented singers to emerge from the swing era, Anita O’Day was a master at improvisation and an impressive jazz vocalist. Hard-swinging and hard-living, she had her own unique style that was unmatched by any of her contemporaries. Her vocal abilities could make even the most recognizable standards seem fresh and innovative.
Born Anita Belle Colton in Chicago in 1919, she was the victim of a botched tonsillectomy when she was seven. She lost her uvula, which caused her to talk loud and shaped her singing voice. She spent her early years on the dance marathon circuit but later discovered that she could sing and changed her last name to O’Day, finding work with Max Miller’s band in Chicago. After bad experiences during brief tenures with Benny Goodman and Raymond Scott, she finally found a home with Gene Krupa’s orchestra in 1941. As a band vocalist, she proved popular, placing sixth in Billboard magazine’s 1942 college poll for best female band vocalist and fifth in the 1943 poll.
O’Day left Krupa at the end of December 1942 and went into temporary retirement to marry golfer Carl Hoff, though some later sources report ill-feelings between her and trumpeter Roy Eldridge as the cause of her departure. She returned to active singing as a solo artist in May 1943, booking herself into Charlie Foy’s Supper Club in Hollywood. She then landed a job with Woody Herman in June, replacing Carolyn Grey who had left suddenly.
O’Day quit Herman the following month, not wanting to follow the band to the East Coast. Her husband, a serviceman, was stationed in Southern California, and she wished to remain there. She returned to Charlie Foy’s as a solo act. She soon found that staying in California limited her options, though, and she signed with a booking agency in September, going out on the road. Reviews during this time reveal her as awkward and unsure how to act or dress as a single. In April 1944, she joined Stan Kenton’s progressive jazz outfit, where she sang on Kenton’s first hit recording, “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine.”
O’Day left Kenton in February 1945 with no definite plans for the future other than to return to California. In July, she rejoined Krupa but left him again suddenly in January 1946, pulling out midway during the band’s run at the Hollywood Palladium and only thirty minutes before a coast-to-coast broadcast. Krupa had to scramble and find a vocalist to fill in, which happened to be the singer for the intermission band, the very same Carolyn Grey whom O’Day had ultimately replaced after Grey’s sudden departure from Herman.
O’Day remained inactive for several months. Reports in June suggested that she would join Les Brown, but she did not return to singing until September, when she launched a solo career again. As with her band years, her stability as a single act was erratic. She recorded for Signature in 1947 and London in 1950 but didn’t go into the studio on a regular basis until signing with Verve in 1952.
O’Day struggled at first. It wasn’t until the release of her 1955 LP, Anita, (the very first LP released by Verve) that she finally found success as a solo artist. Soon she was in demand at major jazz festivals, and she began to work with other top performers, such as Louis Armstrong, George Shearing, Oscar Peterson, Billy May, Cal Tjader, Count Basie, and Thelonious Monk.
An addiction to heroin, though, began to take its toll in the early 1960s, and O’Day’s career after 1963 became even more erratic. Convicted three times for drug offences starting in the early 1950s, she served several months in jail. She physically collapsed in 1967 and spent the next three years trying to kick her drug and alcohol addictions. Her career hit bottom. In 1969, she moved to Greenwich Village to get a fresh start, landing the occasional gig. After getting robbed and losing everything she had, she moved to Hawaii and then back to California.
She made a slight comeback at the 1970 Berlin Jazz Festival, but her career continued to lag. In 1973, she was living in a three dollar a night hotel room in North Hollywood, without a phone. Singing jobs were few and far between, her ability to find work not helped by her notoriously bad attitude. Her comeback trail started when jazz critic Leonard Feather did a story about her life. Soon after, she began receiving offers again, touring across the United States and Japan and singing at jazz festivals around the world.
O’Day recorded several more albums, some on her own label, Emily Records. In 1981, she released her autobiography, High Times, Hard Times. Though her voice began to deteriorate, she continued performing and recording throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Anita O’Day passed away in 2006, age 87.