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Anita O’Day Dies at 87

Singer Anita O’Day, who possessed one of the most distinctive voices in jazz, died Thursday morning of cardiac arrest in a West Los Angeles convalescent hospital, according to her manager Robbie Cavalina. She had been battling a bout of pneumonia but was also suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. O’Day was 87.

The Jezebel of Jazz, who achieved stardom singing for Gene Krupa’s swing band in the early ’40s, was born Anita Belle Colton in Chicago on Oct. 18, 1919. Abandoned by her father when she was a year old, and with her mother working in a meatpacking plant, the only child began singing in church at an early age during summer visits to her grandparents in Kansas City. However, O’Day wasn’t blessed with a naturally angelic voice: As a result of a doctor accidentally cutting off her uvula during a tonsillectomy when she was 7, she had no vibrato and was unable to hold notes. Critic Leonard Feather later described her voice as having a “note-breaking, horn-like style and hip, husky sound.”

O’Day soon left home at the age of 14 to enter a walkathon to raise money for herself during the Depression. Sent back home to the Windy City after a couple of years, she attended school during the day but at night would sing in taverns in the Uptown area. In 1939, the feisty vocalist received her big break, getting hired to sing at the Off-Beat Club in downtown Chicago; she was still relatively unknown when Krupa hired her for $40 a week two years later. That same year, “Let Me Off Uptown,” with legendary trumpeter Roy Eldridge, propelled her into the spotlight. By 1944, when she joined Stan Kenton’s band, Anita O’Day became a household name with hits like “Alreet,” “Kick It” and “Bolero at the Savoy.” The million-selling “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine” proved her most popular recording with Kenton. O’Day embarked on a solo career in 1945, playing small nightclubs all around the country.

With highly acclaimed albums for Verve like Anita (1955), Pick Yourself Up (1956), Anita O’Day Sings the Winners (1958), Cool Heat (1959) and All the Sad Young Men (1961), O’Day became a legitimate jazz superstar, culminating in a memorable appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, famously captured by photographer Bert Stern in his documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day.

Unfortunately, by the time of her Newport triumph and at her artistic peak, O’Day had developed a serious heroin habit, which she battled until a near-fatal overdose in 1966. Documented in her 1981 autobiography High Times Hard Times, after “a troubled life that included back-room abortions, a nervous breakdown, two failed marriages, jail time for drug possession and more than a decade-long addiction to heroin,” the resilient chanteuse kicked narcotics cold turkey.

O’Day continued to record and perform frequently and had just released Indestructible, her first studio album in 13 years, featuring Eddie Locke, Chip Jackson, Roswell Rudd, Lafayette Harris, Tommy Morimoto and Joe Wilder. A documentary, Anita O’Day-The Life of a Jazz Singer, will be released in 2007.

She leaves no immediate survivors. Memorial services are pending.

Originally Published