Anita O’Day, 87; renowned singer was billed as the ‘Jezebel of Jazz’

Times Staff Writer

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

O’Day died of cardiac arrest in a convalescent hospital in West Los Angeles, according to her manager, Robbie Cavalina.

She was recovering from pneumonia and had been in declining health with Alzheimer’s disease.


Hip-talking, blunt and feisty, O’Day launched her singing career as a teenager to make extra money while competing on the Depression-era walkathon circuit.

She was still a relatively unknown singer in jazz joints in her native Chicago when Krupa hired her as his $40-a-week vocalist in 1941.

Billed as the Jezebel of Jazz a decade later, O’Day titled her 1981 autobiography “High Times Hard Times.”

In it, she described 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 that nearly killed her in an overdose in 1966.

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

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, O’Day had no vibrato and was unable to hold notes.

“I’m not a singer; I’m a song stylist,” O’Day insisted during 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.”

In a 1981 Newsweek article on O’Day, writer Charles Michener observed: “The dynamic range of her voice may be smaller than any other jazz singer’s except Blossom Dearie’s, but her flexibility with it allows her to scat, slide and skitter through a song the way a cat’s tongue laps up milk.”

The same year, O’Day told the Christian Science Monitor: “When you haven’t got that much voice, you have to use all the cracks and the crevices and the black and the white keys. That’s all the range I’ve got. I’m no Lily Pons or Sarah Vaughan.”

O’Day scored one of the Krupa band’s greatest hits with “Let Me Off Uptown,” with the great trumpeter Roy Eldridge, in 1941.

It featured Eldridge’s memorable plea, “Anita, oh Anita! ... say, I feel somethin’!” before he launched into an electrifying solo passage.

Named New Star of the Year by Down Beat magazine, O’Day went on to amass other hits with the Krupa band, including “Alreet,” “Kick It” and “Bolero at the Savoy.”

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

Indeed, O’Day even set a style for female band singers by wearing a band jacket, skirt and shirt instead of a gown while performing on the road.

“Few band vocals,” Simon wrote, “can compare with her renditions of “Georgia on My Mind,” “Green Eyes,” “Thanks for the Boogie Ride,” “Murder, He Says” and “That’s What You Think.”

Simon described the latter as “a slow, swinging, totally infectious, almost wordless opus in which, as [Krupa] points out, you can hear how much she sounds like a jazz horn.”

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

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

After leaving Kenton and returning to the Krupa band in 1945 for less than a year, O’Day launched her solo career in nightclubs.

In the early ‘50s, she recorded on jazz impresario Norman Granz’s Clef and Norgran labels and, beginning in the mid-1950s, she recorded a series of well-received albums for Granz’s new Verve label, including “Anita” (1955), “Pick Yourself Up” (1956), “Anita O’Day Sings the Winners” (1958), “Cool Heat” (1959) and “All the Sad Young Men” (1961).

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 documentary, which spotlighted 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, 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. I got busted the first time for marijuana and served 45 days. Next time was for pot again -- I got 90 days but they gave me 45 off for good behavior. These were misdemeanors.

“But the third time around, 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.

She was born Anita Belle Colton in Chicago on Oct. 18, 1919. Her father left when she was a year old; her mother, whom O’Day portrayed in her book as cold and indifferent, worked in a meat-packing plant.

An only child, O’Day began singing as a young girl in church during summer visits to her grandparents in Kansas City.

She left home at 14 and, with her mother’s approval, hitchhiked to Muskegon, Mich., to enter a walkathon, a 24-hour endurance contest similar to the dance marathons that were the rage with out-of-work Americans during the Depression.

O’Day then began traveling in the Midwest as a professional walkathon contestant. “I got fed seven times a day and I was having a ball,” she told People magazine in 1989. “When you are 14, you don’t hurt.”

She made extra money singing, dancing and selling pictures of her and her partner.

During this time she changed her name to O’Day, which she later explained was pig Latin for the “dough” she hoped to make.

O’Day, who once logged 97 straight days walking, spent two years on the circuit before a truant officer caught up with her and forced her to return home to finish school.

She went to school during the day and at night she began singing in taverns in the Uptown area of Chicago. In 1939, she was hired to sing at the Off-Beat Club in downtown Chicago. At the end of her debut five-song set, she received a standing ovation.

“People shouted, stamped, applauded, whistled, stood on their chairs, and cheered,” she wrote in her autobiography. “It was the response you dream about.... I was a success beyond my wildest expectations.... I wasn’t just the toast of Chicago nightlife; I was the toast of all the hep ... musicians and hepcats in the city.”

O’Day’s last recording, “Indestructible Anita O’Day,” was released in April.

She was married in her early years to musician Don Carter and golfer and businessman Carl Hoff. The marriage to Carter was annulled, and the marriage to Hoff ended in divorce.

She leaves no immediate survivors.

Memorial services are pending.