Born: October 18, 1919 (as Anita Belle Colton)
Died: November 23, 2006
Source: High Times, Hard Times Anita O'Day with George Eells (G.P. Putnam's Sons, NY, 1981)
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. During one of those endurance contests, she felt a "Presence" and saw a vision of a man with long hair and a beard dressed in white. This Jesus figure promised her that her dream of being a singer would come true. Emcees at these events included Red Skelton (who she considered careerist) and VIP Lord Buckley, who O'Day writes performed for the sheer love of it. Buckley took an interest in her singing and was an influence on her rhythmically, she writes, 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. 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. The style was soon copied by other singers.
When World War II hit, the band saw constant personnel changes as musicians were drafted. In July 1943, O'Day was on a leave from the band to marry Carl Hoff, a former golf pro who was training to be an Air Force flight instructor, when she got the news that Krupa had been busted for marijuana, and that police had inquired as to her whereabouts too. The bust broke up the band and O'Day bounced between club dates and road tours, while she and Carl worked unsuccessfully to open a club of their own at which she could perform.
In 1945, Krupa reformed his swing band and O'Day loved singing with them again. But the band wasn't doing well financially, partly because of bad press for Krupa after his bust. "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 Carl 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. Carl foolishly brought the police in and 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.
Out on bail pending appeal, O'Day squeezed in some sold-out shows and recording dates before being taken into custody when her appeal failed. She describes the ordeal as much like the rigors of her Walkathon days, adding it was a good rest and the only time in her life when anyone cared whether or not she was fed regularly. After her imprisonment, while performing in Montreal, she suffered an ectopic pregnancy resulting from a rape by film idol John Boles at the Seville Theater. Even so, she got some of the best reviews of her life at this time, while performing with Woody Herman's Herd and the Stan Kenton Artistry In Rhythm Orchestra, and 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." But heroin had begun to take its toll on the music scene, and Carl, who was managing her, couldn't handle it and quit.
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.
She 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" (1960). She also sings the haunting, sexy-stoned lyrics of the title song, "Pull My Daisy," penned by Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg, which opens and closes the short "Beat Home Movie" by Robert Frank. Notoriously rare, this glimpse into the daily life of the Beats in NYC before they became famous.
Tip my cups
Cut my thoughts
Later O'Day 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.
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