Anita O'Day (October 18, 1919 - November 23, 2006)
Born in Chicago to an absentee father and a mother who regarded her as "excess baggage," Anita Belle Colton had undiagnosed poor vision that hampered her education, but she excelled in gym and music. 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, "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."
Soon O'Day hit the road to compete in depression-era Walkathons, where she started singing for extra dollars. Emcees at these events included Red Skelton and VIP Lord Buckley, who took an interest in her singing and was an influence on her rhythmically, as well as employing her at the Planet Mars in Chicago.
Lacking an uvula in her throat which was inadvertently removed during a childhood tonsilectomy, O'Day developed a style whereby she sang rhythmically rather than holding notes as other singers did. An early marriage to drummer and arranger Don Carter solidified her rhythmic training, and she caught the ear of VIP Gene Krupa, who hired her as his "girl singer" in 1941. (He said, "You can swing, you'd better come with us.") On the road, O'Day drank and smoked weed (though not daily, she writes) but never took pills. She rode the high of her art and comaradarie of the band to be named top newcomer in the Down Beat poll of 1941. Among her innovations, she convinced Krupa to let her wear a band uniform instead of a dress for most of their dates, arguing that how she sounded was more important than how she looked.
Krupa's 1943 pot bust broke up his band after it was reformed in 1945, bad press plagued them. "That really bugged me," O'Day writes. "I'd been smoking grass since I was a kid without any terrible effects. Reefer Madness, now a camp classic, was still regarded as a cautionary tale of the evils worked by tea, muggles, mary jane, gage, hemp, marijuana or whatever you wanted to call it." 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.
Road life wore her down, and "To keep me going, everybody was offering me drinks or a hit off a joint. That was the story of my life. Why didn't anyone think of sharing a sandwich?" She left the band and went back to live with her husband Carl Hoff in Los Angeles and in March 1947, two undercover policeman came to their home during a party at which Dizzy Gillespie was playing from the branches of a tree in their front yard. They found a small bag of weed, for which Anita and Carl were arrested. One paper wrote, "What appears to be an all-out campaign by local authorities to tag a big name in the music business with a marijuana charge hit a peak with the arrest of Anita O'Day, winner of numerous national magazine polls." On August 11 Judge Harold B. Landreth found them guilty and handed down ninety-day sentences.
After her jail stint, O'Day performed with Woody Herman's Herd and the Stan Kenton Artistry In Rhythm Orchestra, producing a million-seller with "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine." Kenton later said: "She was the original, the purest one. You couldn't trace her style back to anyone else."
In February 1953, O'Day was in court again for a pot charge, this time for smoking a joint while riding in a car. The case was dismissed by a jury for lack of evidence, but while awaiting her trial O'Day was introduced to sniffing heroin by a character named Harry the Hipster. She'd switched to booze instead of pot after her second bust, and her first thought on feeling the heroin rush was, "Oh good, now I don't have to drink." Within a month, she was framed for a heroin bust and facing six years. She endured two trials before begin sentenced to prison, and served time in Terminal Island, California.
O'Day stayed hooked on heroin for 12 years and was on the drug for her most famous moment in a spectacular dress and hat in the 1958 Newport festival documentary "Jazz On a Summer's Day." Later she kicked her heroin addiction, after almost dying from a 1969 overdose, 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.
O'Day is probably the inspiration for Sugarpuss O'Shea [Barbara Stanwick], a singer in Gene Krupa's orchestra in the 1941 film Ball of Fire. A recent documentary chronicles her life and a new CD "Anita O'Day: Indestructible!" is available. Her Verve recordings can be downloaded from iTunes.
Source: High Times, Hard Times Anita O'Day with George Eells (G.P. Putnam's Sons, NY, 1981)