Anita O’Day: Yesterday & O’Day

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Anita O’Day
By Tad Hershorn
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Anita O’Day
By Tad Hershorn

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“Hello, camera! You want some shots with the boobies? We ignore ’em, but they’re there.”

Outfitted in a silver blouse and pearl earrings, vocal legend Anita O’Day ambles toward center stage at New York City’s Fez. As it turns out, she only looks demure. The petite senior citizen parks herself on a bar stool with all the grace of a sailor. She throws one leg over the other and tries on a big, toothy grin. It’s well-rehearsed from decades in show business.

“Gimme some ideas,” she insists, ready to take on the photographer and a handful of onlookers this warm July afternoon. O’Day barely gives them time for a reply. She picks up a pair of sunglasses, hooks them over her ears and peers over their boxy frames, fashion remnants of the 1980s.

“If I could wink, it’d be nice,” she says flirtatiously, “but I’ll give you some of those eyelashes.” Then, setting the glasses squarely on her face, she waves her arms with melodramatic flair. “It’s too dark. I can’t see my lover. ‘For parting is not goodbye. We’ll be together again.’”

Her antics, a kind of riffing for the camera, draw a calculated laugh. One imagines that they come close in spirit to the less-than-conventional poses from her very first photo session with Gene Krupa’s big band some 60 years ago. (Having finished the requisite glamour shots, the 21 year-old “girl singer” spontaneously kicked off her shoes and hopped on top of Krupa’s floor tom.) Even though she laps up the attention, O’Day will have us know that the entertainment isn’t solely for our benefit. “Well, you gotta tell yourself something!” she blurts out.

Consider her words evidence—not only of a delightful goofiness, the flip side of her hard-boiled, streetwise persona—but of a practical, lifelong approach to her profession.

O’Day once sought ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s advice on how to have longevity as an entertainer: “Think about what you’re doing, not how you’re doing it,” he told her. His counsel resonated with her experience. She took it to heart. When O’Day hasn’t simply filleted her interviewers, she’s often avoided questions about the how and why of her singing. “I dunno,” she huffs, a response still versatile enough to cover any number of questions.

Moreover, what seems like shenanigans on (and sometimes off or en route to) the bandstand serves a real purpose: It keeps O’Day engaged in the process of inventing instead of just thinking about it. It’s strategic. She thrives on action, real or invented, on taking risks and playing games. Win, lose or draw, O’Day is an inveterate gambler, a thrill seeker. The attribute has made for a career with spectacular highs and gut-wrenching lows—still in flux at age 83. It may also be responsible for her outstanding gifts as an improviser, one whose gifts measure up against Ella Fitzgerald’s and Sarah Vaughan’s.

Like many poor kids during the Depression, Anita O’Day had to take chances to get anywhere in life. Born Anita Belle Colton in 1919, she spent her truncated childhood in a working class Chicago neighborhood. Mom was a humorless wage slave; Pop, a charming, hard-drinking ladies’ man. Little Anita’s happiest family memories involve singing around the piano; her father bet on a horse named Anita—or so he said—and bought the instrument with his winnings. She has loved the ponies ever since. The only child, a mediocre student with seemingly few prospects, started entering dance contests at age 14.

Looking for an escape from home, O’Day left to become a contestant in the danceathons. The locales were hardly exotic, places like Muskegon, Mich., and Kankakee, Ill. And the grueling 24-hours-a-day, dance-till-you-drop competitions weren’t for delicate, young flowers. “Two-thousand three-hundred twenty-eight hours,” she proudly declares. “That’s how long I was on my feet.”

Out on her own as a teen, Colton would change her name to O’Day—pig Latin for dough, what she hoped to win. But, in the long run, her experiences turned out to be more valuable than the bread.

She learned how to work a crowd and occasionally sang; Erskine Tate’s Recording Orchestra accompanied her a few times. Fellow danceathoners included vocalist Frank Lo Vecchio (aka Frankie Laine) and hipster Dick Buckley, an M.C. for one contest she entered. O’Day lent him her lobes and the young lord encouraged her to study the recordings of Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Hauled back to Senn Junior High for truancy, she held out at school until her 16th birthday. From there, she graduated to B clubs, first dancing in a chorus line and then working as a singing barmaid and dice girl.

Her big break came with an invite from Down Beat’s Carl Con to open his new room, the Off-Beat Club. O’Day had already been introduced to the concept of riffing and further developed her rhythmic abilities by studying with drummer Don Carter (to whom she was later briefly married). But improvising became critical when rehearsals failed to materialize.

Legend has it that O’Day only had a few tunes ready and half an hour to fill. She looked to her surroundings for inspiration. The shape for scat chorus after scat chorus came from the club and those who occupied it, from the alternating long and short walls of the room to the polka dots on a woman’s blouse. O’Day brought down the house. And during her extended stay at the club, the visiting talent would hip her to other equally clever methods.

“I think Wingy [Manone] was the first person I ever heard compare improvising to a horse race,” she recalls in High Times, Hard Times , her autobiography with George Eells. “It went something like this:

“‘We’re all lined up at the starting gate,’ he said. ‘Now we’re off. In the first couple of bars, right at the start, Wingy’s got the lead. I keep the lead for about 12 bars, then the tenor saxophone overtakes me for about six bars, then I go back into the lead again for the last eight bars. We go into another chorus where the trombone takes the lead. I’m behind all the time, on his tail all the time, and in the last chorus I get the lead but the damn piano takes me down and in the last eight bars of the tag, Wingy takes it over, and the winner of the race is—Wingy Manone!’

“Later, when I got deeply into improvising, that’s the way I thought of each number, as a horse race. Only Wingy’s race was written out like it had been fixed. When I improvise, I put myself on the line. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose, sometimes it’s too close to call.”

O’Day readies herself for a “run through” once Marty Harris arrives at the club. The portly pianist is stripped of his Hawaiian shirt exposing his sweaty back and belly. “It isn’t this humid home in L.A,” he complains, sitting topless at the piano. A veteran who has worked with her on and off for 25 years, Harris plays with O’Day pretty much wherever she gets the occasional gig, like the Atlas Supper Club back in their hometown or the Plush Room in San Francisco.

A bleary-eyed Tom Raney arrives toting his cymbal bag, but it will still be a while before bassist Mark Elliot shows. They came recommended by a third party sight unseen. Harris seems completely unaware of who they are. A sound guy with an Australian accent runs from microphone to microphone and back to the board even though he’s already worked on the quartet’s setup for more than 45 minutes. Harris decides to interrupt him so that they can bond over his recent experiences on a tour down under with Tom Jones. The scene approaches chaos.

To top it off, Harris and Robbie Cavolina, O’Day’s manager these past couple of years, squabble over the set list; the singer pipes up only when asked. Perhaps she’s not capable of taking the reins unassisted, but she certainly isn’t an equal partner in the discussion. This bickering, supposedly on her behalf, makes her sulky. Even for a little old lady with a lot of spunk the whole venture requires a concerted effort. All she wants to do is sing.

And she does sing—wonderfully. Although her voice has never been a conventional beauty—a throaty but nimble alto in decades past—it sounds clearer now than in the last few years. “Let’s faa-aawl in love,” she croons in a plunky, medium tempo 4/4. “Why shouldn’t we—fall-in-love?/Our hearts are made-of-it./…Take-a-chance./Why be afraid. Of. It.”

Each time she sings a chorus—of this tune or any other standard they rehearse—O’Day invents something completely new. Every “A” within the form is even different from the rest. She phrases behind the beat, in front of the beat and over the bar lines. Her rhythmic variations are more impressive than her melodic ones—that was always the case even if the voice has lost flexibility with age—and her time is still great. With uptempo tunes like “Tea for Two,” she skates along on top of the rhythm section like a latter day Sonja Henie. And, even where a note choice may be unclear, her gestures still come across.

Harris and Cavolina bring the proceedings to a halt often and abruptly—a mixed blessing. Hearing her restart tunes again and again provides a rare educational experience, but the discussion about tempos and arrangements often gets heated.

For example, Cavolina argues that “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” should be slower to contrast with the preceding song on the set. And he has it on tape that way. And that Anita should call the tempo anyway. Harris claims that they always did it faster and admits that he just wants to get done so he can go to the hotel and shower. Raney and Elliot look on silently with somewhat bewildered expressions.

Anita seems a little out of it, yet she’s the one who covers for the brouhaha. “You gonna stay, you gotta play,” she banters, searching for a friendly face in the darkened house. “How about a little applause for the cats? They’re new, never seen them before. Keep that in mind when it gets groovin’.”

The rehearsal takes more than an hour and half all told for about a dozen tunes. Harris has a number of criticisms for her, most of which start something like this: “It’s fine what you did, although you did it completely different than the way we normally do it.” Like when she spontaneously started to trade fours with Raney on “S’Wonderful,” building a little rapport with her new rhythm man. O’Day quietly tries to tell Harris that she’s only thinking about what’s going on right now.

When Krupa wagered on O’Day’s talents in 1941, little did he know she would play a vital role in changing the image of girl singers from decorative accessories on the bandstand to serious musicians.

“If you didn’t have a gown and your hair wasn’t looking like a girl, you didn’t get the job. I changed all that,” she claims, stretched out on her bed at the Chinatown Holiday Inn. The visuals oddly reinforce her point: her hair loops around pink plastic curlers. She had worn them all morning, in the lobby and at brunch, with Cavolina. “I said to Krupa, ‘When you get new suits for the band, can I get one with a skirt?’ We don’t wear it at the Paramount Theatre, but we can wear it in Milwaukee! And so, the next thing you know, all the girls with the bands had that.

“Twenty-seven men in a bus and a girl— I was the girl!” she points out, as if questioning her suitability as the lone representative of the female sex. “I didn’t stay a girl long; I became one of the boys. You had to. Otherwise, they’d take advantage of you. They’d pass around the jug; I’d have a little drink. Pass around the cigarettes, whatever. Get in on the card game. I won enough money that I bought my first fur coat when we got to Chicago.” She smiles mischievously. “The guys didn’t know I’d played before.”

A few months after she joined the band, O’Day recorded the hit song “Let Me Off Uptown” featuring guest trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Calling Eldridge a “crybaby,” she asserts that he almost quit the band on her account. He put Krupa on notice that the singer was stealing his thunder; she mimicked the trumpet section’s riffs and danced while he soloed. O’Day says she just wanted to help the scene. And after all, what else was she supposed to do? Just stand there? Not bloody likely.

No matter what the material—and much of it consisted of corny novelties—O’Day turned it into fun, bright, swinging pop. Even though her memory can be hit or miss on other subjects, she still knows many of these songs by heart.

“This is one,” she says, ready to demonstrate. “‘Chickory chick, cha la, cha la. Check-a-la-romi, in a ban-an-icka.’ Or how about ‘Kick It’? ‘Keep the rhythm rompin’, you can kick it.’ So I got to do a little gesture, you know.” Cavolina goads her on, feeding her song titles.

“This morning I sang, ‘All the fellas want to marry Harriet.’” She begins to snap in time. “‘Harriet’s handy with a lariat. She don’t wanna marry yet! She’s having too much fun!’ Then I got with Stan Kenton. I had one tune: ‘And her tears flowed like wine. And her tears flowed like wine. She’s a real sad tomato. She’s a busted valentine.’” The song, the humorous tale of a woman married to a gambler/womanizer, was hardly a stretch for her and turned out to be the Kenton band’s first bona fide hit. O’Day’s tenure with him lasted from 1944 to ’45.

After a brief stint back with Krupa in 1946, O’Day struck out on her own as a soloist to play smaller clubs, forming a musical partnership with drummer John Poole that would last some 35 years. (Around this time, she also left her two-timing second husband, Carl Hoff.) Following her recordings for Norgran and Clef, Norman Granz chose her 1955 album Anita (also known as This Is Anita) to launch the historic Verve record label.

Despite her growing and eventually widely publicized heroin addiction—one that earned her jail time and the moniker “the Jezebel of Jazz”—O’Day completed nearly 20 albums for Verve that defined her work as a top-flight jazz stylist and placed her among the most successful singers in history. The majority of them—including Anita O’Day Swings Cole Porter With Billy May, an intimate set with the Oscar Peterson Quartet titled Anita Sings the Most and, most recently, Incomparable!—have been rereleased in the last few years. For those who can’t settle on a particular album (or two or three), Mosaic compiled The Complete Anita O’Day: Verve/Clef Sessions in 1999.

An overdose in 1966, the graphic and literally heart-stopping scene that opens High Times, forced O’Day to clean up her act. She quit cold turkey in Hawaii, lying in the sun on the beach when she had the chills and cooling off in the ocean when she felt feverish. After a comeback at the 1970 Berlin Jazz Festival, several more albums appeared on her own Emily Records, named for her most beloved companion: a Yorkshire terrier. Skylark, Angel Eyes, My Ship and Live at Mingo’s will be rereleased by the end of the year on her new Kayo label.

O’Day still talks about the drugs with an almost alarming matter-of-factness considering the trauma they caused in her life. (She asks me if the Village Vanguard is still standing, then casually mentions that she used to shoot up behind the stage’s red-velvet curtain.) She can be defensive about her personal life, but no subject is inherently taboo. Hearing her talk, one can tell that High Times comes extremely close to her own words.

She reports that it took Eells 10 months to finish the book, working with her everyday from 10:30 a.m. until 3:30 in the afternoon. He typed manically while she talked, recorded some of her interviews and mined the file of press clips she kept. O’Day “helped him” with his prescriptions for Vicodin.

“Anybody’s name would come up that was in my life,” she explains, “he’d write it down, he’d get in touch with them and drive to them. Drive to Chicago to see a couple of people, drive to Kansas City to see someone else. He was thorough.

“I never read it. I couldn’t. I was sick after doing all that. That’s all I thought about—me and what I used to do. That’s over and out, you know.” The book, published in 1981, caused her second nervous breakdown, the first a result of heavy touring schedules. She canceled the promotional tour.

Some notable gigs would follow—including a bash at Carnegie Hall celebrating her 50th year in show business—but O’Day would ultimately move to a trailer in the small desert town of Hemet in the San Jacinto Valley. Unlike the heroin, which scandalized her career but left her able to fulfill her professional obligations, alcohol earned her a reputation for being difficult and unreliable. Karen Kramer, wife of director Stanley Kramer, bought the rights to High Times and tried in vain to get a film off the ground; O’Day blew off William Morris Agency boss Norman Brokaw. Her work became less and less frequent. And a particular fondness for scotch caused a harrowing episode in 1996 that almost claimed her life.

The day after Thanksgiving, O’Day tumbled down the stairs of her trailer, breaking her right arm above the elbow. From there, an accurate account of the events becomes difficult to pin down. A neighbor who visited her at the hospital soon after was told that she needed a rod implanted in her arm and would then be transferred to the detox wing to recuperate over the next month. But then she simply vanished. For 10 days, her friends and associates, including now former manager Alan Eichler, tried unsuccessfully to locate her.

O’Day, as it turned out, had been transferred to a Los Angeles nursing care facility. The victim of misdiagnosis and neglect, she was near death and virtually unrecognizable when Eichler and others finally found her. Heavy sedation had reintroduced her body to the toxins it had battled for years. Because she hadn’t been given any physical therapy for the trauma to her arm, the bones in her right hand fused together permanently. O’Day also fell prey to a staph infection and pneumonia but fought her way back. The recovery was long and painful.

“After you’re on your back for three years, it takes a long time,” she says, as if describing a long, bad dream remembered only in bits and pieces. “Every time I’d wake up, they’d give me a pill. And nobody knew where I was, so that was that. I was so tired of laying on my back. Then one day they said, ‘You’re gonna walk.’ Ha, ha, ha. All I could do was stand up.

“I stood up for about two weeks. I moved like this for a month”—she takes some baby steps—”When they weren’t around, I’m moving in the bed. You know, you’ve gotta have your legs moving. I was down to 86 pounds. At 5 feet 6!”

The 1999 New York JVC Jazz Festival marked O’Day’s return to performing, but it proved premature, and her visit was poorly planned. The press was also not particularly kind to the aged singer. O’Day left Eichler and bet on the 30-something Cavolina, an art director for many of Joni Mitchell’s CD projects, to help her pick up the pieces. His sister is one of the Fez’s two talent bookers.

At the club, he reported to a room of postperformance stragglers that he had met O’Day in the mid-’90s during one of her benders, that he made sure she stayed sober, started getting new and back royalty payments made to her and encouraged the flow of reissues. In addition to the Verve and Kayo rereleases, “Taking a Chance on Love” from Anita Sings the Most found its way onto the Kissing Jessica Stein soundtrack (also issued by Verve). Last year, O’Day recorded for Mack Avenue’s The Legacy Lives On, Vol. 2, a new collection by master musicians, and did two photo shoots with Annie Leibovitz for the music issue of Vanity Fair, prints from which are also to be included in the photographer’s upcoming volume of women musicians.

Cavolina has also begun to develop new plans for a screen version of High Times. In an arrangement to compensate him for his services, O’Day granted him the rights to her life story. For the past year and a half, he has been working on the screenplay; it will be his first. Rosanna Arquette has tentatively committed to play Anita. “Rosanna who?” O’Day wants to know.

The Anita lovefest at Fez gets underway with some film clips, Cavolina’s standard operating procedure in terms of opening her shows. The clips are almost worth the price of admission on their own.

The reel begins with “Let Me Off Uptown” and another Krupa soundie, “Thanks for the Boogie Ride.” O’Day swings along driving a toy car only to be pulled over by a stern looking police officer. (A little foreshadowing anyone?) Another shows her singing one of the tenor saxophone parts from “Four Brothers” with the Les Brown Orchestra. “Tabby the Cat” and “Mad for a Pad” date from the Kenton years, the stiff, young bandleader trying his best to match O’Day’s natural exuberance.

An appearance on The Dick Cavett Show finds O’Day trying to teach the square TV host how to improvise on “Am I Blue?” “You’re really hung on the melody,” she comments wryly. During a particularly satisfying exchange with Bryant Gumbel, the audience cheers. “Your personal experiences…include rape, abortion, jail, heroin addiction,” he yammers away. With a look that could kill, O’Day silences him: “Well, that’s just the way it went down, Bryant.”

The high point, of course, is a pair of performances from the 1959 classic Jazz on a Summer’s Day, “Tea for Two” and “Sweet Georgia Brown,” perhaps jazz singing’s greatest moment on film. O’Day gets as much out of it as the worshipful, young audience. “It makes a decent opening,” she says. “Some have seen me before and some, you know, never have, but it’s cool, because I act cool. I act like I just got through singing the song in the movie.”

Reflecting the glory of her younger days, O’Day climbs to the stage with a hand from Cavolina. In spite of the rehearsal earlier in the day, she’s all smiles, a show business pro. She remembers nearly all of the arrangements they went through and covers her tracks nicely during the only real detour. The audience is none the wiser.

She demonstrates the timing of a fine comedienne. During “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” she accidentally sings “the way you wear your tea.” A wide-eyed look and a shrug bring giggles from the crowd. They prove equally appreciative of the flat note that evinces “the way you sing off-key” as well as the “bumpy roh-oh-oh-oad to love.” Holding up a copy of Incomparable!, she announces, “This is my latest release. It’s from 1960. I got it last week.” She also zaps Harris, but not unkindly, after an extended solo: “You’ve got to watch these elder gentlemen. They’ll steal the show.”

Her voice seems tired and, especially after the second set, slightly hoarse, a condition no doubt made worse by the trials earlier in the day. O’Day also appears slightly nervous in front of her new fans. It hardly matters. In fact, it only endears her to them more. They hang on her every note, cheering for favorites like “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Boogie Blues,” “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two.” She brings down the house—an uncontested win. Signing autographs takes a full hour afterwards with her now-practiced left hand.

O’Day will return home to Hollywood the following afternoon. She lives in an apartment building once owned by Mary Pickford that’s also a former residence of comedian Jack Benny. Singer/pianist Hadda Brooks, another octogenarian, is a neighbor and friend. It’s “assisted living”; staff members run activities and tidy up. O’Day also has a personal assistant, a blond-haired sweetie named Greg, to help with any of her needs. Cavolina calls and visits to make sure she’s practicing.

She manages to keep herself occupied during the weeks and sometimes months between bookings. She takes long morning walks in Hollywood as soon as the sun comes up. “The oxygen is better,” she rationalizes. She encounters few people.

Along the way, she collects pennies from the sidewalks. She makes a game out of collecting cans to see how many nickel deposits she can earn; it landed her the role of spokesperson for the Hollywood Gateway project to clean up one of the local parks. She likes playing cards. Every once in a while, when someone can take her as a special treat, she makes it to the track. All of her pursuits mark the time, give it a rhythm, fill the space between one gig and the next.

Moreover, they keep her steady and engaged with life, not an easy task for an 83-year-old who refuses to get off that roller coaster or just play it safe. For those who heard her in her glory, they may see her now as a mere shell of her former self or a woman who has made her share of bad choices and had to live with them. But O’Day—a treasure waiting to be discovered by much of America’s youth—is still standing. How she will be remembered ultimately is still too close to call.

Originally published in December 2002

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