Thursday, August 18, 2011

Anita O'Day: Indestructibly Good

UPDATE 10/15: O'Day is included in the new book Tokin' Women: A 4000-Year Herstory.

I just watched the documentary Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, and am happy to report it's a worthy tribute to a brilliant talent.

Music critics and fellow musicians interviewed in the film place O'Day as the only white singer in a class with Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn. Interviews with O'Day and clips of with David Frost, Dick Cavett, Tom Snyder and Bryant Gumbel reveal what a bright spirit she was. It's full of footage of O'Day's incomparable singing style, even though too much time was sucked away in the film—and her life—by her heroin addiction, which came about after a marijuana bust.

One segment demonstrating her improvisation skills intercuts her singing "Let's Fall in Love" at various stages of her career, each one a unique work of art. One admirer recalls her remarking on the sound of a ceiling fan during a memorable performance where she included the fan's rhythm into the song.

O'Day with Gene Krupa
Described not as a mere singer, but rather as musician who used her voice as an instrument, O'Day's rapid-fire delivery could keep up with the likes of Oscar Peterson, Stan Kenton and drummer Gene Krupa. "You can swing, you'd better come with us," Krupa told her when he hired her.

I'm convinced that O'Day is the inspiration for Sugarpuss O'Shea, the character played by Barbara Stanwick in Ball of Fire (1941), featuring Krupa (the documentary opens with her intoning the same "Drum Boogie" riff). She appears as herself in a cameo in The Gene Krupa Story (1959) starring Sal Mineo. "She's all right, if you like talent," someone remarks after she sings.

Rather abandoned as child, O'Day entered Depression-era marathon Walkathons, walking for as many as 2,000 hours to earn food and shelter, and maybe a prize. She started performing in dance contests around the age of 13, smoking reefer with her adult dance partner before they performed (and often won).

In those days, you could buy a joint at the corner store, but soon it became illegal. O'Day writes in her autobiography High Times, Hard Times, "One day weed had been harmless, booze outlawed; the next, alcohol was in and weed led to 'living death.' They didn't fool me. I kept on using it, but I was just a little more cautious." Read more.

One early clip in the film shows O'Day singing with black trumpeter Roy Eldridge during a time when such an act could bring violent repercussions. "Well come here, Roy, and get groovy," she sweetly croons. With its integration policies, the Krupa band "went for the jugular of red-neck America," one critic said.

Krupa was targeted and arrested for marijuana possession in 1943. "That really bugged me," O'Day writes. "I'd been smoking grass since I was a kid without any terrible effects." She adds in a footnote, "I've always felt that exaggerating the destructive effect of marijuana was a big mistake. The fact that people had used it for years without developing severe problems made it easier for them to discount the physical and economic problems created by use of hard drugs." She soon became a case in point.

Anita at Newport.
O'Day was arrested for pot herself in 1947. She did four months' time, and afterwards was led to heroin, figuring, "If they were going to call me a junkie, I figured I might as well be one." She became known as "The Jezebel of Jazz" and teamed up with John Poole, a heroin addict who she heard drumming in a strip club. The two nursed a 16-year addiction, touring the country and recording on the Verve label. She admitted she was high on the drug during her signature performance singing a staccato "Tea for Two" dressed like she was going to a tea party at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958.

After after almost dying from an overdose in 1969, O'Day beat her addiction and came back to tour Japan and Europe, establish two record companies and write her autobiography. In 1999, she celebrated her 80th birthday with a concert at the Palladium in Hollywood. She made a final London appearance in 2004 before she died in 2006 at the age of 87.


Stokrod said...

Love these two lines... “You can swing, you’d better come with us,” Krupa told her when he hired her.

“One day weed had been harmless, booze outlawed; the next, alcohol was in and weed led to ‘living death.’ They didn’t fool me. I kept on using it, but I was just a little more cautious.” Ken P.S. My verification word is: wujibbio

Blogger said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.