Anita O’Day (October 18, 1919 – November 23, 2006) was one of the greatest jazz singers of the 21st century. She also had one of the longest careers in music history: She made her first record in 1941, the last one in 2006 – a time stretch of 65 years! Having had a throat operation at a young age, during which the doctor accidentally cut off her uvula, you’d think that singing was off limits. Anita herself stated that it only meant she was unable to hold long notes and that she sings without vibrato. So she developed a singing style based on rhythm and singing short notes only. This made her an ideal bebop singer, but listening to any of her records, the missing uvula is not something you think much about. Anita has a warm, slighty husky voice and during the years she sang pure jazz, ballads, standard material, some latin-tinged songs – and all of it very well!

Anita spent her childhood in Chicago, raised by her single mother. Her mother is described by Anita in her autobiography as not being very nice. For years, she told Anita that she was born on Christmas Eve (to avoid buying presents probably), and when Anita in her early twenties needed a passport to go on a tour of Japan, she was shocked to find that she was actually born in October! At 15 she took off from home, earning money as a marathon dancer. She must have been a sight back then, as even very late in life Anita was a slim, stylish woman who carried herself with grace and always looking younger than she was.

Early Years: Her work as a dancer got her in touch with a lot of musicians, and she married drummer Don Carter in 1937. By 1941 she had secured a job singing with Gene Krupa, and with his band she made her first record in 1941. She immediately has a big hit with “Let me off uptown”, and up to 1943 when she left the band, she was a big juke box star with several other hits like “Thanks for the boogie ride” and “Stop! The red light’s on”. Her complete recordings with Krupa have been released on CD, and they show the hottest drummer in the world perfectly complementing the voice of the hardest swinging jazz girl ever!

She worked with Stan Kenton’s band 1944-45. The obviously had a good relation ship, as she could sing as hard as he could swing. And he also probably had a thing for girls from the mid-west who sang in the cool jazz style, as some of his other singers were Chris Connor and the late, great June Christy. With this band, Anita had a big hit with “And her tears flowed like wine” and some other notable sides she made during this period are “I’m going mad for a pad”, “Tabby the cat” and “The Lady in red”. She briefly re-joined Gene Krupa in 1945/46, before starting her solo career in 1947.

From 1947 until 1950, she recorded various singles for a lot of small labels and some of these are very good. “Hi ho Trailus Boot Whip” is a wordless scat-masterpiece, her versions of “How high the moon” and “Malaguena” are both great, so is “Key Largo”, “I told ya I love ya – now get out!”, “Harriet” and “Chickery Chick”. The 4 CD Box Set “Young Anita” contains all her songs from 1941-50, including her work with Krupa, Kenton, Count Basie and some air checks recorded for radio. It’s a great collection, and it gives you a wonderful insight of her formative years.

Anita was then signed to Norman Granz’ Verve label and for the next 10 years she consistently made one great album after the other, and the years 1952-62 show once and for all that the Verve records alone would be enough to secure Anita a place in jazz history, and also proves that she was one of the best female singers in her field.

The Golden Years: Most of her albums for Verve have all become classics, almost all of them have been re-released on CD and are available as digital downloads. Verve also made a 9 CD Box Set, “The Complete Anita O’Day Verve-Clef Sessions” which includes all her albums for them, plus some previously unreleased stuff. It’s expensive, but well worth every penny if you can get it! For Verve she made two swinging albums with Billy May, one with Cole Porter songs, the other with Rodgers & Hart songs. Other great albums on Verve are “Anita Sing The Most”, “Anita Sings The Winners”, “Cool Heat”, “Trav’lin’ Light”, “Waiter, make mine blues”, “All The Sad Young Men” and “Incomparable”. The early 2000s saw the release of “Anita Live In Tokyo”, which was recorded live in 1962.

Her contract with Verve ended 1962, and for the next 10 years or so, Anita performed very little, recorded nothing and according to her book did a lot of drugs and alcohol and almost died of an overdose in 1968. By 1970 she had cleaned up her act, detoxed and given up most of her bad habits, and her appearance at the 1970 Berlin Jazz Festival showed that she was still a force to be reckoned with. She also did a couple of films in the early 70s; “False Witness” (1970) and “The Outfit” (1974).

The last 30 years: After a 12 year absence from making records, Anita was back in the studio in 1974 making the album “I Get A Kick Out Of You”, and with rapid tempo followed with other, very good albums : “My Ship” (1976), “Mello’day” (1977), “Angel Eyes” (1978), “In A Mellow Tone” (1989), “Rules Of The Road” (1993). This last album includes Anita doing her version of the James Bond theme song “Nobody does it better” originally performed by Carly Simon. Check it out, and you’ll see that the title fits Anita like a glove! The album also shows the legendary voice beginning to lose some of it original luster, but at age 74 she still has what it takes. After a 13 year retirement, Anita came out on the scene again in 2006, making her very last record “Indestructable!”. Personally, I’m not sure what I think of this album, as it clearly shows an over-the-top 86 year old singer whose voice is very much past its prime. On the other hand, it also proves that her feeling for the material and her ability to go deep into the lyrics were undiminished, and as such it’s not all bad and you have admire that she actually went ahead and did this project! One of the songs, “Is you is or is you ain’t my baby” was featured in the opening scene of the cult movie “Shortbus”. In some strange way, the slurred and sultry O’Day voice blends in very well with the strange, sexually graphic scenes displayed in the movie, and Anita (known for her salty humour) probably thought it hilarious.

If you’re a fan, you probably own every Anita O’Day record already. If you’re curious about her – get one of the Verve albums and check her out. Whether you like jazz singing, or you’re just a fan of great vocalists, her singing can be enjoyed by all music lovers as there is not a bad song among all the stuff she recorded during the 65 years she spent with microphone in hand!

Anita in the 1970's