Anita O’Day defied social boundaries for ‘girl singers’
This year is the centennial of the birth of Anita O’Day, born Anita Belle Colton, a daring jazz vocalist who developed her own style and created a vast body of innovative vocals while being tagged “the Jezebel of Jazz” for her nonconformist ways. In the mid-20th century, she was considered one of the top female jazz singers along with Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. In a career spanning seven decades, O’Day rode the proverbial elevator of fame to the top, only to descend to the depths of hell on Earth on more than one occasion. Somehow, she was always able to rise again.
Raised in an impoverished, broken home in Chicago, O’Day left at age 14 in order to make a living competing in marathon dance contests that were popular during the Depression. At 16, while dancing with a partner, she was asked if she could sing and responded by breaking out in song. The crowd showered her with money, and her destiny was revealed.
O’Day returned to Chicago determined to be a singer and adopted her stage name. She sang wherever she could find a gig, developing unique timing and phrasing, mastering scat singing and trying new interpretations of the established repertoire. By 1941, the 21-year-old was hailed as the “New Star of the Year” by DownBeat magazine and joined Gene Krupa’s big band.
For the better part of the 1940s, O’Day would sing with prominent big bands, including Woody Herman’s and Stan Kenton’s. This was the big band era, and each band had a “girl singer,” conspicuously seated in front of the band, projecting a glamorous image dressed in a strapless gown, while she waited for her turn to perform.
O’Day rebelled against the stereotype and wore a band jacket and a skirt. Her attire was considered shocking, and she was once again judged guilty of outrageous conduct.
By the end of the decade, she left the world of big band singing and went out on her own. She began performing at major venues with many jazz greats, culminating with her appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. From 1955 to the mid-60s, she recorded 17 LPs that confirmed her reputation as a unique song stylist, using an inventive technique fueled by the freedom to improvise, to sing before and after the beat. She combined a great wit with a fearlessness that led her to places others dared not go.
“Given a choice, I wanted to be where the action was,” is the way she explained it. While this approach paid dividends musically, she paid dearly for it in her personal life, as there were failed marriages and affairs, no children and numerous abortions. After her triumph at Newport, the elevator ride up continued a while longer, but the seeds had been sown for a change in direction.
O’Day was eventually jailed for possession and use of both marijuana and heroin on several occasions and regularly abused alcohol. She nearly died from an overdose in 1967, but she quit cold turkey in 1968 and made a miraculous comeback in 1970. She continued to perform and record into the 1990s, but in 1996, she had a terrible accident, suffering life-threatening injuries. Once again, at the age of 80 in 1999, O’Day resumed her career, performing sporadically, but died in her sleep at the age of 87 in 2006.
It is clear, when reflecting on O’Day’s life, that well before third and fourth wave feminism, she was an extraordinarily talented, independent woman who was unwilling to be just “the girl singer in the band.” In the process, she inspired many young female jazz singers to do it their way.
Veronica Swift, a remarkably talented 25-year-old jazz singer, is one of the next generation inspired by O’Day. Vail Jazz is pleased to present Veronica Swift and the Emmet Cohen Trio on Wednesday in two shows at the Sonnenalp Hotel and at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Jazz Tent in Lionshead. For tickets or more information, visit vailjazz.org.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. For more information and a schedule of summer events, visit vailjazz.org.