Jazz great Anita O'Day dies at 87


Anita O'Day, the last of the great jazz singers spawned by the swing era, died Thursday of cardiac arrest in Los Angeles. She was 87.

O'Day was inspired by singer-comedienne Martha Raye and jazz vocalists Mildred Bailey and Billie Holiday, and made her reputation with her sprightly work with the big bands of Gene Krupa, Stan Kenton and (briefly) Woody Herman.

But she later incorporated the rhythmic and harmonic revolutions of bebop into her style; her famed Verve recordings of the '50s and '60s are distinguished by their melodic freedom, rhythmic inventiveness and playful scat singing.

She may be remembered as much for her rugged, headline-making lifestyle as for her artistic achievements. She candidly told her life story — including tales of her 14-year addiction to heroin at the height of her career — in the 1981 autobiography "High Times Hard Times," written with George Eells. O'Day would later say she couldn't read her own book — it made her cry.

O'Day was born Anita Belle Colton in Chicago in 1918. A botched tonsillectomy performed when she was seven left her unable to sing with vibrato; her flexible, legato style became a trademark.

In her early teens during the Depression she began singing at "walkathon" endurance contests around the Midwest. A truant officer put an end to that career, during which she assumed the stage name "O'Day," pig Latin for "dough." But she soon was performing in taverns and clubs in Chicago's Uptown district. During a stint at the Planet Mars on Wilson Avenue, she became the protege of hipster comic Lord Buckley.

Her career took off when she was spotted by drummer Gene Krupa — then leading his own band after working with Benny Goodman — at the Off-Beat Club in Chicago's Loop. As O'Day recalled in her autobiography, Krupa told her, "Anita, I never fire anyone, but if my girl singer ever quits, you've got the job." In early 1941, Krupa made good on his promise.

O'Day was responsible for Krupa's first big hits as a leader, "Let Me Off Uptown" and "Thanks For the Boogie Ride," both of which paired her vocally with trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Krupa's later lead singers June Christy and Chris Connor would owe a heavy debt to O'Day's style.

Two years on the road with Krupa's band were succeeded by a short association with Herman's first Herd and dates with Kenton's orchestra, with which she cut the hit "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine." She returned to Krupa's band, but left again after suffering a nervous breakdown.

In 1947, O'Day made her first solo recordings for Bob Thiele's Signature label. But she gained her greatest renown for her work for Norman Granz's Clef and Verve imprints, where she recorded exclusively from 1955-62. There, she reunited with Krupa and Eldridge, and cut hard-swinging sessions with bands led by Buddy Bregman, Billy May, Bill Holman, Jimmy Giuffre, Johnny Mandel and Gary McFarland, among others. These masterful sessions were collected in 1999 by Mosaic Records in a now-out-of-print boxed set.

In 1958, director Burt Stern captured the performance for which O'Day may be best remembered: Her dynamic appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, where, clad strikingly in a fetching black dress, a feathered picture hat and white gloves, she ripped through up-tempo versions of "Tea for Two" and "Sweet Georgia Brown." The sequence is a highlight of the 1960 documentary "Jazz on a Summer's Day." (O'Day also appeared as herself in the features "The Gene Krupa Story" and "The Outfit.")

O'Day's high level of creativity and productivity may be surprising, considering her many years of drug abuse. A marijuana smoker from her early teens, she did jail time after two highly publicized pot busts in the '40s, and she served a sentence at Terminal Island after a 1954 conviction for heroin possession.

In her memoir, O'Day says she began shooting junk in 1954 with her longtime drummer John Poole. After she suffered a near-fatal overdose in Beverly Hills in 1966, she kicked her habit cold turkey.

After the '60s, O'Day's career was marked by periodic revivals of interest. She made her first comeback after a well-received appearance at the 1970 Berlin Jazz Festival. She released several albums on her own labels, Anita O'Day and Emily, and toured internationally to great acclaim through the '90s.

O'Day remained a popular club attraction in L.A. until the end of her life. Her last album, "indestructible! Anita O'Day" (Kayo Records), was issued this April.

Her marriage to drummer Don Carter was annulled; she later married and divorced golf pro and sometime road manager Carl Hoff. She leaves no survivors.