Anita O’Day: Indestructibly Good

I just rented Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer on iTunes, and am happy to report it’s a worthy tribute to a brilliant talent.

Music critics and fellow musicians interviewed in the film place O’Day as the only white singer in a class with Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn. Interviews with O’Day and clips of with David Frost, Dick Cavett, Tom Snyder and Bryant Gumbel reveal what a bright spirit she was. It’s full of footage of O’Day’s incomparable singing style, even though too much time was sucked away in the film–and her life–by her heroin addiction, which came about after a marijuana bust.

One segment demonstrating her improvisation skills intercuts her singing “Let’s Fall in Love” at various stages of her career, each one a unique work of art. One admirer recalls her remarking on the sound of a ceiling fan during a memorable performance where she included the fan’s rhythm into the song.

Described not as a mere singer, but rather as musician who used her voice as an instrument, O’Day’s rapid-fire delivery could keep up with the likes of Oscar Peterson, Stan Kenton and Gene Krupa. “You can swing, you’d better come with us,” Krupa told her when he hired her. (I’m more convinced than ever that O’Day is the inspiration for Sugarpuss O’Shea, the character played by Barbara Stanwick in “Ball of Fire” (1941), featuring Krupa (the documentary opens with her intoning the same “Drum Boogie” riff.)

Rather abandoned as child, O’Day entered Depression-era marathon Walkathons, walking for as many as 2,000 hours to earn food and shelter, and maybe a prize. 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 in her autobiography High Times, Hard Times, “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.” Read more.

One early clip shows O’Day singing with black trumpeter Roy Eldridge during a time when such an act could bring violent repercussions. “Well come here, Roy, and get groovy,” she tells him. With its integration policies, the Krupa band “went for the jugular of red-neck America,” one critic said. Krupa was targeted and arrested for marijuana possession in 1943. “That really bugged me,” O’Day writes. “I’d been smoking grass since I was a kid without any terrible effects.” 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.

O’Day was arrested for pot herself in 1947. She did 4 months’ time, and afterwards was led to heroin, figuring, “If they were going to call me a junkie, I figured I might as well be one.” She teamed up with John Poole, a heroin addict who she heard drumming in a strip club. The two nursed a 16-year addiction, touring the country and recording for the Verve label.

After after almost dying from an overdose in 1969, O’Day beat her addiction 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 before she died in 2006 at the age of 87.

The comparison to Amy Winehouse is tragically apt. Winehouse was busted for pot in Norway, ostensibly the reason she was denied entry into the U.S. for the 2008 Grammy awards (at which she won five Grammys, including Best New Artist). She had a weakness for men on hard drugs, and they led her back to alcohol and worse. She was again denied entry into the U.S. in 2009, where she was set to perform along with Paul McCartney, Leonard Cohen and others at the Coachella festival in Indio, California. She died with 2.5 million Facebook fans at the age of 27.

Ellen Komp is an activist, writer, and regular contributor to Cannabis Culture. She manages the website and blogs at Tokin Woman.