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 Friday, 27 November 2015
No Fear, No Vibrato: Anita O’Day, 1919-2006 PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Friday, 24 November 2006

All I know is that there are four beats to a bar and there are a million ways to phrase a tune.” –Anita O’Day (undated Down Beat, circa 1938-39)

Anita O’Day

One of the most influential vocalists to emerge from the shadow of Billie Holiday, Anita O’Day passed away Thanksgiving morning in West Los Angeles at age 87. Known as much for her frank independent spirit as for her cool vibrato-less tone, O’Day was an integral part of the Gene Krupa band in the 1940s, forming a brief but legendary partnership with trumpeter/vocalist Roy “Little Jazz” Eldridge. A star through the 1960s, heroin addiction almost cost her both life and career, but she came back to perform and record, author an acclaimed autobiography, and released her last recording earlier this year. She was a true pioneer whose insistence that the vocalist be an equal partner with the instrumentalists in the band blazed a trail for a generation that followed, including Betty Roche, June Christy and Chris Connor.

Anita Belle Colton was born in Chicago in 1919. Seeking to escape a stormy home life, she left home in her early teens, changed her name to O’Day and found work as a marathon dancer. Eventually she worked at the dances and area clubs as a singer before landing a regular gig at Chicago’s new Off-Beat club. Rejected for the Benny Goodman band because she strayed too far from the melody, she became Gene Krupa’s lead vocalist in 1941—arriving at about the same time as Roy Eldridge.

Anita O’Day

The dual arrival of O’Day and Eldridge turned Krupa’s average big band into one of the most popular of all time. O’Day proved very popular despite, or perhaps because of, her quirky independent style, not only in her coolly swinging, unsentimental vocals, but in her choice of attire (a tailored suit like the rest of the band rather than the traditional evening gown). In 1942, she was named "New Star" by Down Beat. Although the partnership with Eldridge produced great music, their strong personalities led to friction, and Anita left Krupa for Woody Herman and then Stan Kenton, rejoining Krupa before leaving for good in 1947. Noted Kenton, “Anita O’Day is the most uninhibited singer I’ve ever known. She sings without fear, and that is what makes her so dynamic.”

With what Count Basie described as a “bop soul,” O’Day’s clipped, staccato phrasing foreshadowed the impending bop movement, while her view that the human voice should participate on an equal basis with instrumental solos revolutionized the role of vocalists in big bands. The big bands of the 40s—particularly those of Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton—catapulted O’Day to stardom as much as her singing brought fame to those ensembles and bandleaders. For Krupa, she recorded his biggest hit, Let Me Off Uptown (Okeh) in 1941, while she gave Kenton his 1944 hit, And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine (Capitol).

Anita O’Day

O’Day’s career careened in fits and starts from the time she left the big bands to fly on her own. The one consistency was drummer John Poole with whom she worked over three decades. With few recordings through 1955, she found new fame on Norman Granz new Verve label, releasing This Is Anita, followed by tours and festival appearances with such high profile musicians as Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, George Shearing, Oscar Peterson and Thelonious Monk. Her appearance in the Newport Jazz Festival documentary, Jazz on a Summer Day, brought her to an international audience in 1958. Ulimately she made 16 albums for Verve and continued touring and recording through the 1960s despite alcohol and heroin addiction. After nearly dying from an overdose in 1969, O’Day overcame her addictions and returned to performing and recording, a story that she tells in her acclaimed 1981 autobiography, High Times, Hard Times.

In the 70s and 80s, much of Anita’s work was released on her own independent label, Emily Records, and she continued recording and performing well into her 70s. After a 13-year hiatus, she released a final recording, Indestructible (Kayo, 2006), that featured Eddie Locke, Chip Jackson, Roswell Rudd, Lafayette Harris, Tommy Morimoto, and Joe Wider. A documentary, Anita O'Day—The Life of a Jazz Singer, will be released in 2007.

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