The Complete Anita O'Day Verve/Clef Sessions
A critic once advised Anita O'Day to clear her throat before singing; another characterized her sound as "strangulated." As she candidly observed in her 1981 memoir, High Times Hard Times, "I knew I didn't have any chops, but I also knew I had a lot of heart."
Despite its keen edge and vivacious sparkle, O'Day's grainy voice lacks richness and power. Her strength stems from her harmonic and rhythmic inventiveness. She relates that, when she was seven, a careless doctor sliced off her uvula while performing a tonsillectomy. As a consequence, she has difficulty sustaining long notes, for which she compensates by breaking extended tones into strings of eighth and sixteenth notes. (Typically, she sings "love" as "la-ah-ah-ah-ah-ve" and, instead of simply repeating the melody note, employs these syllables to navigate the chord structure underpinning the melodic line.) Forced to break long phrases into discrete units, O'Day, who was also a competent drummer, evolved a supple, dynamic sense of time that served her well when bebop supplanted swing. No singer in jazz history has played with the beat so daringly, or swung so consistently, even on ballads.
In the mid-'40s, after successful stints with Gene Krupa's and Stan Kenton's orchestras, O'Day attempted to establish herself as a solo performer. But club dates proved hard to obtain, and she managed to record only sporadically for low-profile labels. Much of her energy was devoted to dealing with an up-and-down marriage to a womanizing pro golfer and a 1953 conviction and prison term for heroin possession.
O'Day's fortunes reversed in 1952 when concert impresario and record producer Norman Granz signed her to Clef. A series of singles and two 10" LPs revitalized her career, capped by the 1956 release of her first 12-inch LP, Anita, on Granz's newly formed Verve label. Showcased in a trio of sympathetic settings-an octet featuring four trombones, a 15-piece brass ensemble, and a small string orchestra-the singer had an opportunity to display her hard-won expertise and, on the string-backed ballads "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" and "Time After Time," reveal a hitherto unsuspected vulnerability.
Anita's critical and commercial success encouraged Granz to embark on a series of 14 more O'Day albums: a reunion with Krupa and Roy Eldridge; a "live" session taped at Chicago's Mr. Kelly's; collaborations with small ensembles headed by Oscar Peterson, Jimmy Giuffre, The Three Sounds and Cal Tjader; studio big band recordings arranged by Buddy Bergman, Billy May, Russ Garcia, Johnny Mandel, Marty Paich, Bill Holman, and Gary McFarland. All of these projects, plus a few singles and alternate takes, are gathered in Mosaic's 9-CD set, The Complete Anita O'Day Verve/Clef Sessions, along with a 32-page booklet containing discographical information, evocative photographs by William Claxton, Herman Leonard and Bob Parent, and Will Friedwald's lengthy, gratingly stream-of-consciousness liner notes.
The most memorable O'Day Verve/Clef albums include Pick Yourself Up, the 1956 follow-up to Anita; Waiter, Make Mine Blues, an atypical ballad collection; Incomparable, a big band session highlighted by Holman's deft arrangement of "Slaughter on 10th Avenue" which uses O'Day's voice as a wordless horn; and Time for Two, on which Tjader's Latin rhythms fuel the singer's effervescence. I'm less fond of the Billy May-arranged Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart songbooks-brief, rather perfunctory interpretations of overworked standards-and Anita Sings the Most, on which the famously dignified Peterson, reportedly bugged by O'Day's recording-studio shenanigans, betrays his exasperation in his overly aggressive accompaniments.
Twice in her autobiography, O'Day quotes, with perverse pride, her longtime booking agent Joe Glaser's observation, "Anita, you've got a million dollars' worth of talent and no class." Revisiting these superb O'Day performances convinces me that a million dollars' worth of talent alone will suffice.