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Legends Never Really Die

By Scott Smith in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 30, 2006 4:30PM

It’s taken us a week of mourning, but we’re finally able to talk about the death of Chicago jazz vocalist Anita O’Day, 2006_11_anitaoday.jpgwho suffered cardiac arrest last Thursday in Los Angeles at the age of 87.

Born Anita Belle Colton in Chicago in 1919, her father left when she was one and her mother found work in the city’s then-thriving meatpacking industry. She left home at the age of 12 to compete in marathon dance contests, but returned to Chicago to work as a chorus girl, then as a singer in various Uptown clubs and the Off-Beat club in the Loop.

O’Day once told the New York Times, "I'm not a singer; I'm a song stylist." The difference may be slight to some, but if you initially warmed to the song “I Could Write A Book” thanks to the When Harry Met Sally soundtrack, O’Day’s version will wipe Harry Connick’s take from your collective consciousness. She was from an era when the singer did not just sing, rather, she inhabited her work. A feat O'Day accomplished without full use of her instrument; she had no vibrato thanks to a botched tonsillectomy as a child.

Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, O’Day worked as a vocalist with some of the greats in big band and jazz: Gene Krupa, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Count Basie. But it was the 17 albums she recorded with Verve between 1956 and 1962 that established her own legend.

O’Day – nicknamed “the Jezebel of Jazz” - was, in a word, tough. 2006_11_anitaoday2.jpgA pot smoker since her early teens, she was arrested for possession twice, and served brief stints in jail, including six months for heroin possession. She kicked the habit after a life-threatening overdose in 1966. Her LA Times obituary also notes two failed marriages and “backroom abortions.” Nevermind the struggle to form her own identity in the male-dominated and ego-ridden world of jazz and big band.

Her career suffered after her overdose, but she continued to tour and record in the years after, including the album Indestructible in 2006. Irascible to the end, Wikipedia says she died on Thanksgiving Day, two days after she demanded to be released from the hospital, where she was recovering from pneumonia.

If you’d like a starting point for the work of Anita O’Day, we recommend Incomparable, Anita Sings The Most and especially her two albums of standards with Billy May.