Jazz Profiles from NPR
Anita O'Day
Produced by Joan Merrill

Anita O'Day  

Anita O'Day is a singer's singer. Highly rhythmic with a distinctive sense of phrasing, she was one of the first big band singers to tackle the intricacies of bebop and prevail. She's influenced many, including June Christy and Chris Connor, and now stands as a living legend.

Listen to writer Will Friedwald, pianist Marian McPartland, and singer Chris Connor describe Anita O'Day's singing

Born Anita Belle Colton in Chicago, Illinois on October 18, 1919, O'Day grew up in a broken home. She took the first chance to leave home when, at age 14, she became a contestant in the popular Walk-a-thons as a dancer. She toured with the Walk-a-thons circuits for two years, occasionally being called upon to sing.

Anita returned to Chicago, and landed her first legit singing gig at Chicago's Planet Mars. Carl Cons, the editor of Down Beat magazine at the time, caught her performance and was so enthralled that he hired her to open his new jazz club, The Off-Beat.

The Off-Beat showcased many up-and-coming talents and was a favorite hangout for popular bandleaders. Drummer Gene Krupa was a frequent patron there, and caught Anita's performance. In 1941, he recruited her to sing in his band.

Listen to Anita describe what it was like singing with the boys in Krupa's band

With Krupa's band, Anita sang on many hits, most notably the daring duet with trumpeter Roy Eldridge on "Let Me Off Uptown." During the early 1940's, not many bands were inter-racially mixed, and to have a white female sing with a black trumpeter was most definitely a social taboo.

In 1943, Anita left Krupa's band to marry professional golfer, Carl Hoff. She later joined Woody Herman's band, and afterwards, Stan Kenton's. At first, she was reluctant, because she thought her musicality wasn't compatible with Kenton's, but she did land a hit with the band in 1944 with "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine."

Listen to Anita sum up her short tenure with Kenton's band

Kenton's love for novelty tunes and comparatively strident rhythmic flow eventually got the best of Anita, who liked fiercely swinging beats. After a year with the band, she had to leave, because of artistic differences.

Listen to Anita describe Kenton's material

Stan Kenton  

Although Anita's stay with The Stan Kenton (left) Orchestra was short-lived, she did set the standard for future singers in the band like June Christy and Chris Connor. In fact, it was Anita who recruited Christy as her replacement.

Listen to Anita explain why she left Kenton's band and how she recruited June Christy

Apparently, bebop tickled Anita's ears more than swing. The rhythmic, improvisational pliancy of bebop was the perfect vehicle for Anita's singing style. Eventually she began performing with the bebop masters to hone her improvisational skills.

Listen to Anita and Friedwald talk about her love for bebop

In the late 1940s, Anita struck out on her own. While hanging out at the Club Starlite in Los Angeles, she met drummer, John Poole. Rhythm being so essential to her musicality, she's very choosy about her drummers. In Poole, she found not just a great drummer, but a worthy musical partner for 32 years.

Listen to Anita and drummer John Poole talk about their musical rapport

If the drummer is no good, I can't make it. That's why I like John Poole. He's my favorite drummer.

-- Anita O'Day  

Norman Granz signed Anita to his new label, Verve, and in 1955 her debut, This Is Anita became the label's first LP. The album elevated her career to new heights. It featured her rendition of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," which was unusual considering that she often stayed away from ballads

Listen to Anita talk about her ballad singing abilities

Anita began performing in festivals and concerts with such illustrious musicians as Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, George Shearing and Thelonious Monk. She appeared in the documentary filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Jazz on a Summer's Day, which made her an international star.

Listen to Connor, Poole, McPartland, and Anita talk about her performance at the Newport Jazz Festival

Between 1957 and 1963, Anita recorded 16 albums with various big bands and small ensembles. She performed with everyone from vibraphonist Cal Tjader to the hard bop trio, The 3 Sounds. In 1964, she did her first tour in Japan. As the 1960s winded down, so did the popularity of jazz in America.

In the 1960s, Anita became addicted to heroin, and nearly died from an overdose in 1967. She eventually beat her addiction, cold turkey during a retreat in Hawaii, and returned to work. In 1981, she published her autobiography, High Times, Hard Times, which, among other things, talked candidly about her drug addiction.

Listen to Poole describe how she kicked her heroin addiction

Today, Anita O'Day lives in Southern California and is still singing. According to writer Will Friedwald, "She still has this excitement to her and this spontaneity. She can still turn an audience on."

Listen to Anita reflect on her long career


View the Anita O'Day show playlist


Listen to an NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Pick Yourself Up with Anita O'Day


  • The Official Anita O'Day Web Site