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Anita O'Day: Revisiting A Classic Voice

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Anita O'Day: Revisiting A Classic Voice

Anita O'Day: Revisiting A Classic Voice

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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Back when she was very young, one of Anita O'Day's first auditions as a jazz singer was with the Benny Goodman Band. Goodman rejected her, saying that she didn't sing the melody, but that was one of her gifts: to improvise on the melody and to swing.

She first became known in 1941, when she joined the Gene Krupa Band. She later sang with Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman and many small groups. Anita O'Day died in 2006 of a heart attack at age 87. A documentary about her called "Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer" has been making the rounds at film festivals and theaters for the last several months.

It was directed by Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden and has just come out on DVD. Here's an excerpt from the documentary. You'll hear the voices of Anita O'Day, of jazz pianist and educator Billy Taylor, and of jazz critic Bill Friedwald(ph), who speaks first.

(Soundbite of movie, "Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer")

Mr. BILL FRIEDWALD (Jazz Critic): Famous story about Anita, that even back in the '40s, when she was still a band singer, that band singers were always these really glamorous creatures that wore these big, flowing evening gowns, and it was very difficult, you know, for these four girls to manage this while they were on the road.

Ms. ANITA O'DAY (Jazz Singer): You gotta be pretty, and you gotta wear a dress, but they don't move.

(Singing) Love is a many splendored things.

Mr. BILLY TAYLOR (Jazz Pianist): She looks gorgeous. She don't move.

Mr. FRIEDWALD: And Anita was the first one to insist on just wearing a regulation band uniform and a skirt, you know, not to do the full glamour route.

Ms. O'DAY: When Gene was doing it very well at the Paramount Theater, he hired a tailor to give them an outfit, two outfits - one for on the road with green slacks and a checkered jacket and everything, and I just asked him if I could have a skirt and jacket made, and I set that trend, played it like one of the guys.

Mr. FRIEDWALD: This is like one of the guys in the band because that was her training, and she knew how to handle all those kind of situations where she was the only woman or whatever, but she was fun.

Ms. O'DAY: I got to be one of the guys so much, I used to have the girls waiting for me…

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: In her 1981 autobiography, "High Times, Hard Times," O'Day explained that her last name was Colton(ph), but she changed it to O'Day because in pig Latin, O'Day meant dough, and she hoped to make plenty of it. Unfortunately, most of the money she did make from her records and concerts went into her arm.

She had always been a hard drinker, but in 1954, she started using heroin. It wasn't until 15 years later that she kicked that habit.

"Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer" includes excerpts from a number of radio and television interviews with her, including one she recorded with Terry Gross, which we're about to hear.

It was in 1987, during our first year as a national daily show on NPR. At the time, O'Day was 68 years old and appearing at a club in San Francisco. Before we hear that interview, here's Anita O'Day in 1959 with a band led by Jimmy Giuffre.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. O'DAY: (Singing) Some day, when I'm awfully low, and the world is cold, I will feel a glow just thinking of you, just the way you look tonight.

Lovely, with your smile so warm and your cheeks so soft. There is nothing for me but to love you just the way you look tonight. With each word your tenderness grows, tearing my fears apart, and the smile that wrinkles your nose touches my foolish heart.

Lovely, never, never change. Keep that breathless charm. Won't you please arrange it for I love you just the way you look tonight.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Anita O'Day, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Ms. O'DAY: Oh, good morning. It is morning where you are? Well, it's morning somewhere, right?

GROSS: It's morning somewhere, that's right.

Ms. O'DAY: That's right because I just got come back from Europe, and it takes, like, days for you to get used to, like, the 10-hour difference.

GROSS: You know, throughout your career, you've always not wanted to be the, quote, "girl singer," the person who's accompanied by the band, accompanied by the orchestra. You've always said you wanted your voice to be part of the band.

Ms. O'DAY: Right.

GROSS: Would you explain some of the things that you did and didn't want as a singer with a band?

Ms. O'DAY: Well, the things I did want was to be there because you learn and you earn while you learn, nothing wrong with that one. The band work is really very simple work. It's called pattern work, and you mostly sing quarter notes, and the band fills with patterns.

(Singing) Pleasure, you're about…

(Speaking) The band goes doo-wah, doo-wah. You know what I'm talking about? So it's called pattern work, and then, well, after Gene Krupa orchestra for five years, and Stan Kenton for one year, this was a few years back. I decided that I would like to try for a school group, which is different kind of work.

GROSS: You have a very unique voice, and physically one of the reasons for part of the uniqueness of your singing is that you don't have a uvula, which is that…

Ms. O'DAY: Oh, you read my book…

GROSS: I did read your book. Can you tell us about how you lost your uvula? And I should say that that's the little fleshy overhang in the back of your mouth.

Ms. O'DAY: That looks like it hangs down in the back of the throat when you see the cartoons, and it shows her singing, and that little is going laaaaaaaa - well, that's gone.

I was in the hospital for just a regular - tonsils or something, I think. I was seven years old, and my mother said, years later - I said, you know, I want to be a singer, and I've really got a problem. I can't get any vibration going. I have to make a different type, and that's when she told me about this uvula having been - it was a slip of the knife.

GROSS: During the tonsillectomy.

Ms. O'DAY: Yeah, during the - like, you know, tonsillectomy, right. That's how that went down.

GROSS: How did that change you singing?

Ms. O'DAY: Well, not knowing about it from seven years old and not knowing I was going to be singing at 20 and still singing at 68 years old, it didn't make much different, I mean, because you find a way to do it because where there's a will, you know.

GROSS: Before you even sang professionally, you picked up some money in walk-a-thons and dance marathons…

Ms. O'DAY: That's right.

GROSS: …during the Depression.

Ms. O'DAY: Oh yes.

GROSS: Did you have an endurance record? Do you remember what your record was for number of hours danced or walked?

Ms. O'DAY: Well, I was in six contests, and I came in four out of six contests, and the longest one I was in that I can remember, Red Skelton was the night MC, and June Haver was in the show, and Frankie Laine was in the show, and we were all in the show, whatever, but we were still in the show, 2,328 hours.

GROSS: That's a lot. Do you think this is good practice for being on the road?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. O'DAY: Well, you gotta learn something from it. I hope I did.

GROSS: Anita O'Day is my guest. When you were singing with big bands, you were usually the only woman in the band, and I think it was always a source of pride for you that you could, you know, keep up with the men in every way.

In your book you wrote that you were proud that you carried your own bags, you paid your own checks when you were with the Krupa Band.

Ms. O'DAY: Yes, uh-huh. Yeah, I sort of became one of the guys because that was the only way to play it, you know? I mean, I guess you could play it girl, but I haven't played girl yet. Let's see, I'm 68. I'm going to play girl next year because I'm always too busy.

GROSS: What does playing girl mean to you?

Ms. O'DAY: Just that. You know, you wear a girl's clothes and you don't pick up your own bags. I've been wearing slacks since 1932.

GROSS: Well, actually, you mentioned in your autobiography that because you sometimes, when you were on the road, wore a real simple outfit, a band jacket and just a simple skirt, that some people figured you must be a lesbian because you weren't wearing a gown.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. O'DAY: Well, how about I was wearing the jacket of the band, and the skirt idea was like and idea I had, and Gene went for it, you know? The next thing you know, the Modernaires were doing the same thing. It's a matter of convenience, which is what life is all about. Where I work it is.

GROSS: You used to sing duets with trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Was there any resistance at that time, and this is the early 1940s, to having a black performer and a white performer singing duets on the same stage?

Ms. O'DAY: Well, I think there was something going on out there. It didn't bother me. I'm from Chicago. I went to colored schools, you know. That didn't bother me. When we played the South, it was really horrendous at that time, right.

GROSS: There were negative reactions from the audience or from the club owners? Who caused the problem?

Ms. O'DAY: In the South it was just the people for him to get into the theater, let alone perform, you know. In New York City there was no problem.

GROSS: I want to play the first really big hit that you have, play an excerpt of it. This was - you recorded this in 1941, with Roy Eldridge.

Ms. O'DAY: With Roy, yeah, I do it every night. I call it my nostalgia portion (unintelligible).

GROSS: What's the story behind the record? How did you get to do a duet on this?

Ms. O'DAY: Oh, I have no idea. Gene bought it from somebody, who made the arrangement and taught us how to do it. It belonged to Gene. It was in his books.

GROSS: The record sold, I think, a million and a half copies.

Ms. O'DAY: That's the one. Gene bought a house in Yonkers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. O'DAY: Yeah, that's right.

GROSS: Let's play an excerpt of it. This is my guest, Anita O'Day, as recorded in 1941.

Ms. O'DAY: Right.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. O'DAY: Hey Joe.

Mr. JOE ROY: What do you mean, Joe? My name's Roy.

Ms. O'DAY: Well, coming here, Roy, and get groovy. You've been uptown?

Mr. ROY: No, I ain't been uptown, but I've been around.

Ms. O'DAY: You mean to say you ain't been uptown?

Mr. ROY: No, I ain't been uptown. What's uptown?

Ms. O'DAY: (Singing) If it's pleasure you're about, and you feel like stepping out, oh you've got to shout it, let me off uptown. If it's rhythm that you feel, then it's nothing to conceal. Oh, you've got to spiel it. Let me off uptown. Rib joints, juke joints, hep joints. Where could a fella go to top it?

If you want to pitch a ball, and you can't afford a hall, all you've got to call is let me off uptown.

Mr. ROY: (Singing) Anita, oh Anita - (Speaking) say, I feel somethin'.

Ms. O'DAY: Whatcha feel Roy, the heat?

Mr. ROY: No it must be that uptown rhythm. I feel like blowin'.

Ms. O'DAY: Well, blow Roy, blow.

(Soundbite of trumpet)

GROSS: Anita O'Day, how did that record change your life?

Ms. O'DAY: Well, it didn't change it too quickly because at that time there was no union for girl singers. I made $7.50.

GROSS: From a million-and-a-half-selling record?

Ms. O'DAY: That's right. He built a house in Yonkers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My goodness. You played with several other big band leaders in addition to Krupa. You performed briefly with Benny Goodman, and you described him as a bandleader who always tried to distract attention from the performer so that - why, so that they wouldn't take attention away from him?

Ms. O'DAY: Yeah, well, that was just his style. I don't think he did it maliciously. That, you know, that was just his way.

GROSS: How would he do it?

Ms. O'DAY: Well, first, if I'm scheduled to do four tunes, and the people are giving me too much attention, he would just automatically go into "Sing, Sing, Sing," which is his tune, and I'd have to leave the stage waving goodbye.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You describe Stan Kenton as being incapable of swinging.

Ms. O'DAY: Yeah, Stan couldn't swing. I mean, I love Stan, and I love his upbeats, and he was the artistry and rhythm, and that's funny because when I was with the band, I was there for a year, I sat on the stage like the Gene Krupa Orchestra, and at the end of these extravaganzas, Stan would go: Da, da-duh, whatever. The band is holding this note, and he'd look over at me like, when do I cut it off, you know?

If he did it on his own, he'd cut it off at six and seven-eighths, I never heard of it, but I'd get him to cut it off on four. So I did that for a year, you know, just trying to be helpful.

BIANCULLI: Jazz singer Anita O'Day, speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: We're listening to Terry's 1987 interview with jazz singer Anita O'Day, who died three years ago at age 87. A documentary on her life and music, called "Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer," has just been released on DVD. Here's O'Day in a recording from 1960.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. O'DAY: (Singing) I saw you last night and got that old feeling. When you came in sight, I got that old feeling. The moment that you danced by, I felt a thrill, and when you caught my eye, my heart stood still.

Once again, I seem to feel that old yearning, and I knew the spark of love was still burning. There'll be no new romance for me, it's foolish to start, for that old feeling is still in my heart.

I saw you last night, got that old feeling. When you came in sight…

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's conversation with Anita O'Day, recorded in 1987.

GROSS: You've had a lot of hard drinking in your time, and you've also done a lot of drugs in your time. Do you think that your involvement with alcohol and drugs had anything to do with wanting to keep up with the men, as we were talking about before, and wanting to be at the top, as it were?

Ms. O'DAY: That's a good question. I never thought about it that way. No, I do it because I enjoy it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. O'DAY: You know, everybody has their things, and that's what I do. You know, I didn't want to have a family. I didn't want to sit at home. I didn't want to be a housewife and own property, and I didn't want to work in an office from 9:00 to 5:00, and so I was just out there looking to find something that I could, like, go along with and maybe contribute to the people in world.

GROSS: You started smoking grass when you were 12 or 13 years old, and that was…

Ms. O'DAY: It wasn't against the law then, Terry.

GROSS: That's the amazing thing. You know, it's hard for me to think of a time before marijuana was illegal.

Ms. O'DAY: It's not against the law, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. O'DAY: Yeah. Well, I didn't look for it, just the people that were going my way, that's what they were doing, you know.

GROSS: There was a period of, I guess, close to 15 years when you were using heroin and still performing most of that time.

Ms. O'DAY: True.

GROSS: Did the musicians who were users stick together and all know who each other were?

Ms. O'DAY: More or less, yes.

GROSS: Why was it important to stick together?

Ms. O'DAY: Well, to see who had the newest connection. What else? Come on, Terry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I guess it was hard to find contacts when you're on the road, as you always are when you're a musician.

Ms. O'DAY: Whatever. That's one of them, yeah. That's not my problem anymore, so I really could care less, you know.

GROSS: When - you were convicted several times on drug charges. How difficult did that make it for you to get bookings in certain cities that had…

Ms. O'DAY: That helped. That's show biz.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Seriously, it helped? I can't tell if you're kidding or not.

Ms. O'DAY: No, I'm not kidding. That's show biz. It does. It helps. They come to look at the girl that went to jail for smoking dope. I don't say that happens today, because it's too popular today, and the kids grew, and they say, well, that's a scam, you know. But at that time, that was part of it. Man, I'd work a club, and they'd be standing out down the street, around the corner, getting in to see the girl just got out of jail, yeah.

GROSS: Did that make you pretty angry?

Ms. O'DAY: It didn't make me angry. Business was great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. O'DAY: Come on, where are you?

GROSS: How did you finally kick after…

Ms. O'DAY: Oh, I went to Hawaii. I went to Hawaii, and I didn't know anybody in Hawaii, and when you get the chills, I just laid in the hot sun, and when you get the sweats, I'd jump in the water. I did it for five months, cool, cold, and straight ever since.

GROSS: Did you have to almost relearn how to sing straight after you'd been performing high for so many years?

Ms. O'DAY: Yeah. You kind of have to work around it, right. That's why I went back to this nostalgia thing because I'd been doing be-bop and whatever else, and so I went back to before that time, and that's what I'm doing now.

GROSS: I recently had the opportunity to see a movie that I suspect a lot of listeners have seen, "Jazz on a Summer's Day," which was a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival.

Ms. O'DAY: Oh, I was feeling no pain that day.

GROSS: Really?

Ms. O'DAY: I was on "60 Minutes," and Harry Reasoner asked me the same thing. He says that day, when you were on "Jazz on a Summer's Day," and you were out there in that big-picture hat, and the breeze was blowing those real ostrich feathers on top of it, he says to me: Were you high? And I looked at him, and I looked back at the little film they were showing me, and I says: I would say yes. That was "60 Minutes."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, you know what I really wanted to know was how you - you were wearing these great white gloves in it, these like (unintelligible) wrist-high white gloves, and it's very sharp looking. I don't know how many women were actually wearing those gloves back in 1958, but how did you decide to wear them? I think it almost became a trademark…

Ms. O'DAY: Well, I went to George Wean(ph), who was the promoter of the whole thing, and I said what night am I on, because it was Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday night, and he says to me, oh, you're on Sunday afternoon, and I said, oh, thanks a lot, you know. What am I going to wear on a Sunday afternoon? I'm not going to wear a frock to the floor, and I'm not going to wear it off the shoulder. So I got to thinking.

So I lied prone and I kind of, like, thought what would you wear? I was due at 5:00 o'clock. So I wore a cocktail, afternoon cocktail-party dress with the black sheath and the white peplum and little glass slippers and little white gloves and this black hat with the ostrich feathers, and it worked out apropos for the time O'Day - that's a joke, O'Day. Terry, hello? Terry, are you there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. O'DAY: Yeah, that's what happened, love. Yup, that was it.

GROSS: Okay, well, I want to thank you very much.

Ms. O'DAY: Well, I want to thank you for even considering me. It's very nice of you to bring me forward to all the listening fans of your age, and I appreciate it. Thank you, Terry, and my best to FRESH AIR. Is that what it's called?

GROSS: Yup.

Ms. O'DAY: Let's have some FRESH AIR, and I'm with you, babe. I'm with you, babe. Check it out.

BIANCULLI: Jazz singer Anita O'Day, speaking to Terry Gross in 1987 during our first year as a national daily show on NPR. The singer died in 2006 at age 87. A documentary about her, "Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer," has just been released on DVD. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

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