Jazz loses one of its most distinctive voices

Anita O'Day: 1919-2006

November 24, 2006|By Dennis McLellan | Dennis McLellan,Los Angeles Times

Anita O'Day, who shot to fame as a singer with drummer Gene Krupa's swing band in the 1940s and became one of the most distinctive voices in the history of jazz, died yesterday. She was 87.

Ms. O'Day died of cardiac arrest in a convalescent hospital in West Los Angeles, according to her manager, Robbie Cavalina. She had been in declining health battling Alzheimer's disease and had a recent bout with pneumonia.

Known as hip-talking and blunt, Ms. O'Day started her career as a teenager, competing on the Depression-era Walkathon circuit. She was still a relatively unknown singer in jazz joints in her native Chicago when Mr. Krupa hired her as a $40-a-week vocalist in 1941.

Billed as the Jezebel of Jazz a decade later, Ms. O'Day titled her 1981 autobiography High Times Hard Times. In it, she described a life that included backroom abortions, a nervous breakdown, two failed marriages, jail time for drug possession and more than a decade-long addiction to heroin that nearly killed her.

"She was a wild chick, all right, but how she could sing!" Mr. Krupa once said.

Ms. O'Day sang with what jazz critic Leonard Feather described as a "note-breaking, horn-like style and hip, husky sound."

As a result of having her uvula (the small, fleshy part of the soft palate that hangs down above the back of the tongue) accidentally cut off by a doctor during a tonsillectomy at age 7, Ms. O'Day had no vibrato and was unable to hold notes.

"I'm not a singer; I'm a song stylist," she said in a 1989 interview with The New York Times. "I'm not a singer because I have no vibrato. ... If I want one, I have to shake my head to get it. That's why I sing so many notes - so you won't hear that I haven't got one. It's how I got my style."

Ms. O'Day scored one of the Krupa's band's greatest hits with "Let Me Off Uptown," with trumpeter Roy Eldridge, in 1941. It featured Mr. Eldridge's memorable plea, "Anita, oh Anita! ... Say, I feel somethin'!'" before he launched into an electrifying solo passage.

In his book The Big Bands, George T. Simon wrote that Ms. O'Day's "rhythmic, gutty, illegitimate style first confused but soon converted many listeners. Whereas most band girl singers had projected a very feminine or at least cute girl image, Anita came across strictly as a hip jazz musician."

Ms. O'Day even set a style for female band singers by wearing a band jacket, skirt and shirt instead of a gown on stage.

After leaving the Krupa band, Ms. O'Day was a vocalist with Stan Kenton's band from 1944 to '45; her most popular recording with was the million-selling "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine."

In 1945, Down Beat magazine named Ms. O'Day "Top Girl Band Vocalist," and 22 jazz critics voted her "Outstanding New Star" in an Esquire magazine poll.

A memorable appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, in which she sang nine songs, was captured in photographer Bert Stern's documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day. The film spotlighted Ms. O'Day singing Tea for Two as a fast tune and also Sweet Georgia Brown, added to her stature as a jazz legend, made her a star in Japan and paved the way for international tours.

At the time of her triumphant Newport Jazz Festival appearance, Ms. O'Day was well into her 14-year addiction to heroin.

As a band singer, she said in a 1973 Los Angeles Times interview, "the narcotics thing was just there. It was what was happening. Kept me in and out of trouble for 20 years; cost me a couple of very nice houses, the Jaguar, the self-respect, everything."

After being arrested twice for using marijuana, "I got busted for heroin. That was a bum rap - a musician set me up for it. He was able to keep out of trouble by turning someone else in every so often. They put me in jail for six months.

"Well, I figured I had the name, I might as well play the game. So when I got out, I decided to try it. It's like quicksand - you never get out."

After a near-fatal overdose in Los Angeles in 1966, she kicked her heroin habit cold-turkey, although she turned to alcohol.

Ms. O'Day, who continued singing into her 80s, was married in her early years to musician Don Carter and golfer and businessman Carl Hoff. The marriage to Mr. Carter was annulled, and the marriage to Mr. Hoff ended in divorce. She leaves no immediate survivors.

Dennis McLellan writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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