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'Fresh Air' Marks The Centenary Of The Birth Of Jazz Singer Anita O'Day


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Singer Anita O'Day was born 100 years ago today. We'll mark the occasion with a tribute by jazz critic Kevin Whitehead, and we'll listen back to Terry's 1987 interview with O'Day. Anita O'Day inspired the so-called cool jazz singers of the 1950s. Music critic Will Friedwald described O'Day as, quote, "always the greatest, the coolest, the hippest and the swingingest (ph)," singing with bands led by Gene Krupa, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman and others. In her 1981 autobiography, "High Times, Hard Times," O'Day explained that her last name was Colton, but she changed it to O'Day because in pig Latin, that meant dough, and she hoped to make plenty of it.

O'Day died in 2006. Kevin Whitehead says O'Day is probably best remembered for singing a sultry "Sweet Georgia Brown" in the film "Jazz On A Summer's Day," shot at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. But he says she made her name long before and kept making it after.


ANITA O'DAY: (Singing) You torture me, zoot, are we living? I'm thinking of leaving him flat. He says, dig dig the jumps. The old ticker is giving. Now, he can talk plainer than that. He says murder, he says. Every time we kiss, he says murder, he says. Keep it up like this, and that's murder, he says in that impossible tone. It will bring on nobody's murder but his own.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Of all the singers who came up in the big, white swing bands, Anita O'Day was the coolest. She was at ease with slangy novelty tunes and with her own independent style. On tours with Gene Krupa, she wore a band jacket on stage like the guys and, she said later, carried her own bags and picked up her dinner checks.

Her tough, hip persona echoed in Barbara Stanwyck's character, Krupa singer Sugarpuss O'Shea in the screwball classic "Ball Of Fire." O'Day made her reputation with Krupa's hit "Let Me Off Uptown" in which the audibly white singer hipped the audibly black trumpeter Roy Eldridge to happenings in Harlem. The premise is so comic, you could overlook how subversive their easy rapport across racial lines was in 1941.


O'DAY: Hey, Joe.

ROY ELDRIDGE: What do you mean Joe? My name's Roy.

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

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

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

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

O'DAY: (Singing) If it's pleasure you're about, and you feel like stepping out, all you've got to shout is let me off uptown. If it's rhythm that you feel, then it's nothing to conceal. Oh, you've got to spiel is, let me off uptown.

WHITEHEAD: Starting in 1944, Anita O'Day spent a year with Stan Kenton's band, helping them break through with the queasy-making hit "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine." The lyric appears to make light of a wife's abuse at the hands of a violent, two-timing husband. But in the end, she gets the last laugh - sort of.


O'DAY: (Singing) He got mixed up with a Maisie. He got mixed up with a Flo. So Flo shoved him in the river. He'll not get mixed up no more. His wife then draped herself in black that showed her figure fine. Then she cussed him out, the two-faced guy. No insurance could she find.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) And her tears flowed like wine. Yes, her tears flowed like wine. She's a real sad tomato. She's a busted Valentine.

WHITEHEAD: After the swing band's collapse in the mid-1940s, Anita O'Day's career ran alternately hot and cold for decades, partly due to drug and alcohol problems. In the 1950s, she signed with record producer Norman Granz. That resulted in her most substantial recorded legacy, though she and Granz didn't get on. He put her in front of strings and limber small groups, but she often sounded most at home fronting big bands, as in the '40s.


O'DAY: (Singing) If I love again, though it's someone new, if I love again, it will still be you. In someone else's firm embrace, I close my eyes and see your face. If I love again, I'll find other charms. But I'll make believe you are in my arms.

WHITEHEAD: In the 1950s, Anita O'Day mined The Great American Songbook of Broadway and movie tunes. Since those were familiar to listeners, she could take liberties with the melodies, demonstrating superb timing and how sensitive she could be with a lyric. O'Day always said she sang without vibrato, but you could spot her light vibrato on ballads. This is from "Early Autumn."


O'DAY: (Singing) There's a dance pavilion in the rain all shuttered down, a winding country lane all russet brown. A frosty window pane shows me a town grown lonely.

WHITEHEAD: Anita O'Day kept recording occasional novelties like "Rock And Roll Waltz" in the '50s or "Your Red Wagon" in the '60s. Then she was up and down again. You could blink and miss her in the 1973 Robert Duvall flick "The Outfit," where she sings for nobody during daylight hours in a Bakersfield bar back when the real O'Day was living in a $3 hotel room with no phone.

But soon she was back for a successful third act, fronting small groups. Her voice had gotten heavier, but she could still work it and inhabit a lyric and savor an introductory verse. Here she is in 1975.


O'DAY: (Singing) My story is much too sad to be told, but practically everything leaves me totally cold. The only exception I know is the case when I'm out on a quiet spree, fighting vaguely the old ennui. Then I suddenly turn and see your fabulous face. I get no kick from champagne. Mere alcohol doesn't thrill me at all. So tell me, why should it be true that I get a kick out of you? Some get a kick from cocaine. I'm sure that if I took even one sniff, it would bore me terrifically, too. But I get a kick out of you.

WHITEHEAD: Anita O'Day kept singing, if less often, and in 2006 put out her last gasp, the CD "Indestructible!" It made Billie Holiday's croaking late phase sound girlish. O'Day's take on "A Slip Of The Lip," a wartime advisory from 1942, is as strange as anything from late-period Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan's "Basement Tapes."


O'DAY: (Singing) Don't talk too much. Don't you jive too much. Jack, don't be too hip 'cause a slip of the lip might sink a ship. Walls have ears. Night has eyes. So let's be wise and trick those past guys.

WHITEHEAD: In her autobiography "High Times, Hard Times," Anita O'Day insisted she wasn't a singer but a song stylist. And she was stylin' right till the end. She passed away late in 2006, 65 years after joining Gene Krupa, a good long run for any singer or song stylist.


O'DAY: (Singing) Skylark, have you anything to say to me? Won't you tell me you where my love can be? Is there a meadow in the mist where someone's waiting for a kiss? Skylark, have you seen a valley green with spring where my heart can go a-journeying over the shadows and the rain to a blossom-covered lane? And in your lonely flight, haven't you heard the music of the night? Wonderful music, faint as a will-o'-the-wisp, crazy as a loon, sad as a gypsy serenading the moon. Skylark, I don't know if you can find these things, but my heart is riding on your wings. So if you see them anywhere, won't you lead me there?

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. We'll listen back to our 1987 interview with Anita O'Day after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're celebrating the centennial of the birth of jazz singer Anita O'Day. Let's listen to the interview Terry recorded with her in 1987.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: 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.

O'DAY: Right.

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

O'DAY: Well, the things I did want was to be there because you learn, and you earn while you learn (laughter) - 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 - the band goes, doo-wah (ph), doo-wah, you know what I'm talking about?

GROSS: Uh-huh (ph).

O'DAY: So it's called pattern work. And then, well, after Gene Krupa orchestra for five years and Stan Kenton for one year - this is a few years back - I decided that I would like to try for a small 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...

O'DAY: Oh, you read my book. I can tell.

GROSS: I did read your book. What - 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.

O'DAY: That's that little thing that hangs down in the back of the throat. When you see the cartoons, and it shows they're singing, and that little thing's going, la-a-a-a-a (ph), well, that's gone.

GROSS: (Laughter).

O'DAY: I was in the hospital for just regular big tonsils or something. I think it was 7 years old. And my mother said - years later, I said, you know, I want to be a singer. And what - 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.

O'DAY: Yeah, during the, like, you know, tonsillectomy, right.

GROSS: So...

O'DAY: That's how that went down.

GROSS: How did that change your singing?

O'DAY: Well, not knowing about it from 7 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 difference (laughter) 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 walkathons...

O'DAY: That's right.

GROSS: ...And dance marathons during the Depression.

O'DAY: Oh, yeah.

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

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 emcee. 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 was good practice for being on the road (laughter)?

O'DAY: (Laughter) Well, you got to learn something from it. I hope I did (laughter).

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?

O'DAY: Well, I think it - there was some - something going on out there. 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 problems?

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: 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 performers so that - why? So that they wouldn't take attention away from him?

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?

O'DAY: Well, for instance, if I was 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 (laughter).

GROSS: (Laughter).

O'DAY: Yeah.

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

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 da-da, or 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.

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 and wanting to be as tough as they were?

O'DAY: That's a good question. I never thought about it that way. No, I do it because I enjoy it. 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 to 5. And so I was just out there looking to find something that I could, like, go along with, you know, and maybe contribute to the people in the world.

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

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...

O'DAY: That it was not against the law.

GROSS: ...Marijuana was illegal. Yeah.

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.

O'DAY: True.

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

O'DAY: It helped. That's showbiz (laughter).

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

O'DAY: No, I'm not getting. That's showbiz. It does. It helps you. They come to look at the girl that went to jail for smoking dope. Man, I'd work at 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?

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

GROSS: Right.

O'DAY: Come on. Where were you?

GROSS: (Laughter) How did you finally kick after doing drugs?

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 jumped 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?

O'DAY: Oh, yeah. You kind of have to work around it. Right. That's why I went back to this nostalgia thing. It's because I'd been doing bebop 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 our listeners have seen, "Jazz On A Summer's Day," which was a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival.

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

GROSS: You wearing these great white gloves in it - these, like, I think 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 for a while.

O'DAY: I went to George Wein, who was the promoter of the whole thing. And I said, what night am I on?, because it was Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday nights. 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 an off-the-shoulder.

So I got to thinking, and so I lied prone and I kind of, like, thought, what would you wear? It was due at 5 o'clock. So I wore a cocktail afternoon cocktail party dress with the black sheath and the white peplum and little glass slippers and the little white gloves and this black hat with the ostrich feathers, and that worked out apropos for the time o' day. That's a joke.

GROSS: (Laughter).

O'DAY: Terry? Terry, are you there? Yeah, that's what happened, love.

GROSS: Oh, goodness.

O'DAY: That was it.

GROSS: OK. Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

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?


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

DAVIES: Jazz singer Anita O'Day speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. O'Day was born 100 years ago today. She died in 2006. Coming up after a break, we remember journeyman actor Robert Forster and we have a review of the new satirical film "Jojo Rabbit." I'm Dave Davies. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANITA O'DAY'S "AIN'T MISBEHAVIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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