Incomparable!

Some 30 years ago, an editor asked me to interview and review Anita O’Day, who died Nov. 23, at 87, of complications from pneumonia. Even in the 1970s, her endurance was notable, and that was before she published a marvelous, jaw-dropping 1981 memoir, High Times Hard Times (written with George Eells), that detailed her ingestion of enough stimulants to mummify a small nation, and her weathering of decades of one-nighters and double-digit abortions. After opening night at Michael’s Pub, she groused about the sound system (“If I can’t hear the musicians, how are they going to know what to play?”) and a sore throat, but remained unconcerned about the audience, which blithely chattered throughout the set. We agreed to meet at her hotel room the next day.

I knocked. No answer. I knocked again. I paced the hall, gave it one last shot and went down to the hotel desk to see if she had left a message. She hadn’t. So I returned to her floor, wrote a short note with my phone number, and slid it partway under the door. Buttoning my coat, ready to leave, I watched as it was pulled inside. So I knocked again, calling, “Ms. O’Day?” The note came back with a written response: She was really under the weather, it said. So I sat on the carpet, and we sent messages back and forth under the door until she offered to meet me the next afternoon at the club. As I walked toward her table, she looked rouged and radiant. She enthusiastically welcomed me and asked someone to fetch her latest album, on which she inscribed: “For Gary, ‘Can’t We Be Friends?’ Anita.” No problem.

Anita was a commanding and provocative lady whose womanliness remained central to her style—a charging yet minutely detailed vocal elation. In the days of dimpled girl singers who raised their pleated skirts above the knee for cheesecake photos, O’Day insisted on wearing tailored band-suits. She didn’t want to distract listeners with ample cleavage. Phrasing like an instrumentalist, she made the most of her husky timbre (the result, she said, of a sloppy tonsillectomy), which rendered her middle register aggressively sensual. Bending notes, accenting phrases with brief tremolos, and exploiting diverse musical personae, from self-mocking to frankly lubricious, she was able to find the story in any lyric.

Or not. She could also deconstruct a perfectly sane lyric into a series of glottal explosions, planting syllables on or around the beat. Think of her Newport triumph in 1958 (seen in the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day), taking the stage in a sleek sleeveless black dress with an ostrich-plumed sunhat and, for gosh sake, white gloves, chanting “tea-ea-ea fu-or two-oo-oo,” as if she had just taken leave of a mahjong party to which she would return as soon as she had taken care of business, which on this day happened to be raising a stadium audience to a plane of pleasurable disbelief. After watching that performance, you want to roll over and light a cigarette even if you don’t smoke.

Anita began working at Midwestern walkathons and dance marathons. “The people threw money on the floor and you were allowed to keep it,” she told me. “But that ended when a truant officer finally followed me there.” Born Anita Belle Colton in Kansas City in 1919, she started singing in Chicago as Anita O’Day, a name she adopted because pig Latin “was big then” and it translated as dough. She worked at the Three Deuces, singing with all the bands and hooking up with a guitarist named Al Lyons, who took it upon himself to educate her on singers by playing records in his trailer. “He played Ella, Mildred Bailey, Billie. After that, I was going over to listen to records every day.” Yet her “inspiration” was Martha Raye, the comedian whose recordings are largely forgotten. O’Day saw her in the Bing Crosby dude-ranch Western Rhythm on the Range and was smitten: “She was my favorite singer. I liked her rhythm, freedom and sound.”

Anita’s big break came with Gene Krupa, who hired her to replace Irene Daye. She bridled at the memory of signing autographs after shows as kids, looking at her signature, complained, “Naw, you ain’t Irene.” That changed a few months later when she shared the vocal with Roy Eldridge on Krupa’s 1941 hit, “Let Me Off Uptown,” a daring performance that apparently ruffled few if any feathers, though it’s hard not to hear it as a fun-loving hymn to miscegenation: “Well, blo-ow-ow, Roy, blow!” In 1944, she joined up with Stan Kenton and helped him to one of his first hits, “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine,” while creating a vocal style that was often associated with the West Coast’s cool jazz. She quit Kenton after promising to find a replacement, and did so in Shirley Luster. “I said, ‘Little girl, how would you like to be rich and famous?’” Kenton changed her name to June Christy and encouraged her to mint O’Day’s signature glottal thrust.

Things began to unravel as the big bands went off to die and styles changed. In 1953, she served time on a marijuana charge in a junkie ward. On release, she spent three days looking for her first fix. Having been labeled a user, she said, she wanted to know what it was about. She found out: Addicted for 15 years, she flew to Hawaii in 1968 and went cold turkey on the beaches. “They still come around offering,” she noted ruefully, “but I pass.” Of course, it was during those 15 years that she did much of her best work: an incredible series of albums for Verve, employing great arrangers, musicians and repertory—collaborating with Jimmy Giuffre on Cool Heat, with Johnny Mandel and Russ Garcia on a Billie Holiday tribute, Trav’lin’ Light, with Billy May on a swinging Rodgers and Hart set, with Gary McFarland on the more reflective All the Sad Young Men, and with Bill Holman on the justly titled tour de force, Incomparable!, among others.

The last time I saw her, she was as thin and wired and tightly wound as her steely white hair, ignoring the audience while scolding the rhythm section for failing to do her bidding. Only occasionally did she find the right mount and then canter happily to a beat that satisfied her. The horse metaphors are hers. “In my head,” she told me, “I’m a jockey of songs. The group is my horse and I ride the song. Coming into the homestretch, I have to pace myself to come in first, ahead of the horn. You have to listen and work together or it doesn’t come out.” She for damn sure worked—practically until the end, 70 years after those dance marathons.

Originally published in January/February 2007

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