Anita O'Day

Anita O'Day Biography

American jazz singer (October 18, 1919 – November 23, 2006).

O'Day was admired for her sense of rhythm and dynamics, and her early big band appearances shattered the traditional image of the "girl singer". Refusing to pander to any female stereotype, O'Day presented herself as a "hip" jazz musician, wearing a band jacket and skirt as opposed to an evening gown. She changed her surname from Colton to O'Day, pig Latin for "dough," slang for money.


O'Day, along with Mel Tormé, is often grouped with the West Coast cool school of jazz. Like Tormé, O'Day had some training in jazz drums (courtesy of her first husband Don Carter); her longest musical collaboration was with jazz drummer John Poole. While maintaining a central core of hard swing, O'Day's skills in improvisation of rhythm and melody put her squarely among the pioneers of bebop; indeed, a staple of her live act in the 1950s was a cover of "Four" by Miles Davis.

She cited Martha Raye as the primary influence on her vocal style, although she also expressed admiration for Mildred Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday.

O'Day always maintained that the accidental excision of her uvula during a childhood tonsillectomy left her incapable of vibrato, and unable to maintain long phrases. That botched operation, she claimed, forced her to develop a more percussive style based on short notes and rhythmic drive. However, when she was in good voice she could stretch long notes with strong crescendos and a telescoping vibrato, e.g. her live version of "Sweet Georgia Brown" at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, captured in Bert Stern's film Jazz on a Summer's Day.

O'Day's backbeat-based singing style was strongly influential on many other female singers of the late swing and bebop eras, including June Christy, Chris Connor and Doris Day.

O'Day's long-term problems with heroin addiction and alcoholism and her often erratic behavior related to those problems earned her the nickname "The Jezebel of Jazz"

Early career

Born into a broken home in Chicago, O'Day took the first chance to leave home when, at age 14, she became a contestant in the popular Walk-a-thons as a dancer. She toured with the Walk-a-thons circuits for two years, occasionally being called upon to sing. In 1934, she began touring the Midwest as a marathon dance contestant and singing "The Lady in Red" for tips.

In 1936, she left the endurance contests, determined to become a professional singer. She started out as a chorus girl in such Uptown venues as the Celebrity Club and the Vanity Fair, then found work as a singer and waitress at the Ball of Fire, the Vialago, and the Planet Mars. At the Vialago, O'Day met the drummer Don Carter, who introduced her to music theory and whom she married in 1937. Her first big break came in 1938 when Down Beat editor Carl Cons hired her to work at his new club at 222 North State Street, the Off-Beat, which quickly became a popular hangout for musicians. Also performing at the Off-Beat was the Max Miller Quartet, which backed O'Day for the first 10 days of her stay there.

While performing at the Off Beat, she met Gene Krupa, who promised to call her if Irene Daye, his current vocalist, left his band. In 1939 she was hired as vocalist for Miller's Quartet, which had a stay at the Three Deuces club in Chicago.

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