Described by Newport impresario George Wein as "one of the greatest singers in the world," Anita O'Day took the stage at Freebody Park on July 3 with a light rain falling on the crowd. For her opener, O'Day and her unnamed accompanying piano trio launch into a jaunty rendition of "Let's Fall in Love," with the unorthodox singer's mercurial rhythmic sense lending a playful, freewheeling quality to this Harold Arlen-Ted Koehler ditty from 1933. From that frisky opener they slide into a sublime reading of the poignant Jimmy Van Huesen-Johnny Burke ballad from 1953, "Here's That Rainy Day." Coming out of a gentle piano solo, O'Day indulges in some abstract scatting and extrapolating on the melodic theme that twists the popular tune into surreal knots. And she closes her set in dynamic fashion with a blazing scat rendition of "Four Brothers," the Jimmy Guiffre tune composed for the star sax section of the Woody Herman's Second Thundering Herd (comprised of tenor saxophonists Stan Getz, Herbie Steward and Zoot Sims along with baritone sax ace Serge Chaloff). On this up-tempo romp, O'Day showcases her skills as an improviser fully capable of going toe-to-toe with the 'boys in the band,' a quality that vocalists like Betty Carter would later adopt.
A star of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival (her flamboyant, show-stopping performance of "Tea for Two" and "Sweet Georgia Brown" was captured on the Bert Stern documentary, Jazz on a Summer's Day), O'Day was born Anita Belle Colton in Chicago on October 18, 1919. She changed her surname from Colton to O'Day, pig Latin for "dough," slang for money. Inspired by such singers as Martha Raye, Mildred Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday, she left her broken home at age 14 and the following year began touring the Midwest as a marathon dance contestant and singing "The Lady in Red" for tips. She became a professional singer in 1936 and in 1937 married jazz drummer Don Carter, who introduced her to music theory. O'Day began performing at the Off-Beat club in Chicago in 1938 and the following year was hired as vocalist for Max Miller's Quartet at the Three Deuces in Chicago.
In 1941, O'Day got her big break when drummer-bandleader Gene Krupa hired her. They scored a hit that year with "Let Me Off Uptown," a novelty duet between O'Day and trumpet star Roy Eldridge, a featured performer in the Krupa band. Named "New Star of the Year" for 1941, she appeared in two soundies (short musical films) the following year with Krupa's aggregation. When Krupa's band broke up in 1943 (following his arrest for possession of marijuana), O'Day joined Woody Herman's band for a short stint before joining Stan Kenton's big band in April, 1944. During her 11 months with Kenton, O'Day made several recordings with the band and also appeared in a short film. "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine" became a huge hit for the Kenton band and helped elevate O'Days profile during the post-War years.
O'Days own trials and tribulations with drugs began to manifest in 1947, when she spent 90 days in jail for possession of marijuana. Her solo career got back on track after signing with Norman Granz's Norgran label in 1952. For the next decade she recorded 17 critically acclaimed albums for Granz on his Norgan and Verve labels, all the while dealing with a severe heroin addiction (indeed, she claims in her 1981 memoir High Times, Hard Times to have been high on heroin during her star turn at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival). In 1959, she toured Europe with Benny Goodman but recorded infrequently after her Verve contract expired in 1962. Her appearance at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival was something of a triumphant comeback after she had nearly died of a heroin overdose the previous year. She followed with appearances in 1970 at the Berlin Jazz Festival and in Tokyo, and resumed making albums in Japan and in the States for her own label, Kayo (named for her pet dog).
O'Day remained a forceful presence on the scene through the '70s and '80s, slowing down considerably in the '90s. Her last album, Indestructible was released in 2006. She died in November of that year at age 87. (Milkowski)