with Stan Martin, Andy Martin, Bob McChesney, Bob Enevoldsen, Bob Sanders, Alex Iles, Jack Sheldon, Wayne Bergeron, Ron King, Ron Stout, Gary Grant, Sal Lozano, Danny House, Pete Christlieb, Jerry Pinter, Brian Williams, Christian Jacob, Trey Henry, Ray Brinker
Recorded March 29 and 30, 1993.
ABOUT ANITA O'DAY
"In this world, you’ve only got what you give away," says Anita O’Day, "and that’s what I do, I give myself to my audience." For more than 50 years, the legendary jazz vocalist has shared her art, her heart, and her soul on records, in clubs and concert halls, at jazz festivals, and in a classic autobiography. The sacrifices were often painful, but they are paying off handsomely in the sixth decade of O’Day’s career, capped by an exclusive recording contract with Pablo Records that has resulted in the new album, Rules of the Road.
"I’m just a working girl," insists the 74-year-old innovator. But from the moment she first shook the foundations of American popular music in 1941-as the 22-year-old "canary" fronting Gene Krupa’s big band, singing the hit "Let Me Off Uptown" with trumpeter Roy Eldridge-O’Day’s oft-repeated humble refrain has been belied by the milestones of her extraordinary life. First with Krupa, then with Stan Kenton, and finally with her own small groups, she revolutionized the art of Swing Era jazz vocalizing, providing the link between her role model, Billie Holiday, and such subsequent O’Day-influenced singers as June Christy and Chris Connor. With a set of artistic tools completely different from those of her contemporaries (Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, and Sarah Vaughan), O’Day developed a unique personal style that has earned her perennial accolades as a "pure" and "true" jazz singer.
Born in 1919 as Anita Colton, she grew up in Chicago and discovered singing as her salvation from tribulations of a harsh family and social environment during the Great Depression. As a 14-year-old, Anita entered the grueling "walkathons" of the day, earning a little extra money by singing such tunes as "The Lady in Red" and "I Can’t Give You Anything But Love." (Other entertainers who got their starts at those dance marathons included Red Skelton and Frankie Laine.) Needing to change her last name to evade the truant officer, she picked O’Day because it was pig latin for the dough she hoped to reap. Anita became a regular in Chicago saloons and nightclubs, notably at the Three Deuces, where she sang with the Max Miller Combo and frequently listened to Art Tatum.
Recruited by drummer Krupa in 1941, O’Day experienced early stardom with such hits as "Thanks for the Boogie Ride," "Georgia on My Mind," "Boogie Blues," "Skylark," "Opus One," "And That’s What You Think," and the classic "Let Me Off Uptown." The "dough" that rolled in from the records, however, amounted to the set payment of $7.50 per side. O’Day joined Stan Kenton’s band for a year in 1944, scoring a million-seller with "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine," and topping Down Beat and Esquire magazine polls in ’44 and ’45.
After playing the Hollywood Palladium with Woody Herman, Anita helped Gene Krupa reorganize his band and then went out on her own, affectionately known as "the Jezebel of Jazz." O’Day then recorded several sides for Signature Records (including "Hi Ho Trailus Boot Whip" and "Malagueña") and London Records. That led to a deal with producer Norman Granz’s first labels, Norgran and Clef, which later became Verve, for whom she recorded 18 popular and critically regaled albums during a 12-year association. (In fact, with her new Pablo album, O’Day has recorded for every label that Granz ever started.) From a sometimes exploited big band singer whose repertoire typically included jazz arrangements of pop songs, she became a highly paid, distinctive modernist with a sound, according to Newsweek’sCharles Michener, "that plays hide-and-seek with the familiar melody so as to give it more shape, volume and thought than it’s ever had before."
Still, as she always has, O’Day claims, "I’m not a singer, I’m a song stylist," and she attributes the difference to adjustments she was forced to make because of her personal physical attributes. When she was seven, during a tonsillectomy, a doctor snipped off her uvula, the fleshy gland most people have at the back of their throats, rendering her incapable of creating a natural vibrato. "I’ve always had to do the best I can with what I have to work with," she explains modestly, "so, like different painters who have different styles, I just have a different style. Plus, I’m kind of a tall, slim gal, and I don’t have the air capacity of someone like Ella. When she takes a breath in, she can sing half a chorus. I can’t do that, and that’s why I don’t sing ballads in tempo. I sing them telling a story, ad lib."
If anything, O’Day’s ability to tell a story in song has improved over the years. As John S. Wilson wrote in the New York Times a few years ago, she is better than ever at "projecting the sense of the lyric with gentle warmth and insight, yet retaining the jazz-based character of her phrasing." Reviewing a 1989 engagement at Michael’s Pub in New York, Wilson called the then 70-year-old O’Day "the best jazz singer performing today."
But, as she revealed in her 1981 autobiography High Times, Hard Times (written with George Eells and since reissued in paperback and optioned for motion picture development by Stanley Kramer), despite such triumphs as her 1958 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival (documented in the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day) surviving to reach such a peak of form was never easy. The long road of her jazz life involved more than hit records and bus rides with the boys in the band. For O’Day it was an often harrowing journey that included back room abortions, a backstage rape, drug busts, prison time, 16 years of heroin addiction, a nearly fatal overdose, and "cold turkey" withdrawal. Those experiences are long behind her now, but O’Day notes, "if you’ve been a junkie for 16 years, it takes you a long time to recover, and you’ve got to start all over again."
After a stirring 50th anniversary concert in Carnegie Hall in 1985, a 1990 Grammy nomination for her 1989 DRG album In a Mellow Tone, and recent CD reissues of many of her classic Verve, Capitol, and Columbia recordings, O’Day is making yet another fresh start on Pablo with Rules of the Road. Featuring trumpeter Jack Sheldon’s 17-piece big band, the album reunites O’Day with arranger Buddy Bregman, who worked with her nearly 40 years ago on her first two Verve recordings-Anita, which featured the inimitable versions of "Honeysuckle Rose" and "You’re the Top (You’re the Bop)," and Pick Yourself Up, which included a timeless "Sweet Georgia Brown."
Her relationships to her songs (of "Body and Soul" she says, "that’s my only baby") are eclipsed only by her relationship with her audience. "Without them you’re nothing," she says. "That’s where my heart lies, that’s all I’ve got. I had a couple of boyfriends, duds, a couple of husbands, gone, but you always get something back if you give. That’s never changed."