Anita O’Day was at the very top of the most thrilling jazz singers to ever walk the face of the earth, and I’m glad to see that she’s finally gotten her due with a documentary, Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer. Though I love her singing, all I really know about Anita O’Day’s personal life is that she once claimed while drunk that her dog was her manager, usually barked condescending orders at whatever band with which she appeared, and had her uvula accidentally cut out of her throat in a tonsillectomy accident when she was a child, resulting in her characteristically husky voice. Oh, and that she was a heroin addict. But everyone knows that.
The definitive live footage of Anita O’Day remains her performances of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two” from the great film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a beautifully artistic documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. (She admits to being high on heroin during the concert.) But this documentary sounds pretty good, and in anticipation of the film opening at the Rialto in Santa Rosa this Friday, I’ve been throwing her records on the turntable every night this week. Here are her best, and yes, they’re all on Verve.
Anita Sings The Most (1957): This is O’Day in great style with a supremely great backing band of Oscar Peterson’s quartet with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis. A wonderful song selection and fantastic performances. The whole album is loose with plenty of interplay, and O’Day is especially inventive on songs like “’S Wonderful”—and rips it up on “Them There Eyes.” A too-slowed-down version of “I’ve Got the World on a String” is the album’s only misstep, especially coming just before the perfect closer, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”
This is Anita (1955): Anita O’Day’s stellar first album for Verve Records—and in fact, the very first album released by Norman Granz’s then then-brand-new Verve Records. Contains O’Day’s incredible version of “Honeysuckle Rose”—it saunters like syrup—and a buoyant take on “You’re the Top” revised with jazz references to Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Art Tatum. A delicate “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” is the quintessential wintertime song, with wonderfully drawn-out consonants and vowels. If you don’t have any Anita O’Day records, this is a damn good place to start.
Pick Yourself Up With Anita O’Day (1956): Still one of my favorites, after all these years, not the least because it contains her well-known version of “Sweet Georgia Brown” from the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Make sure to hit up the lesser-known tunes on this fantastic session: “I Never Had a Chance,” “I Used to be Color Blind,” and the bouncy “Let’s Begin.” Buddy Bregman is the arranger, adding a Latin feel to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (and Ellington interpolations here and there), and overall, O’Day rides along smoothly with skill and frivolity. Yes, it looks like she’s shoplifting a toaster on the cover.
Anita O’Day Swings Cole Porter With Billy May (1959): As close a pop album as O’Day ever came to, combining the widely recognized songwriter with one of the brawniest arrangers of the day. The results work remarkably well, and May’s creative arrangements keep the jazz spirit alive and well. “Just One Of Those Things” kicks the album off like a horse out of the gate, and it rarely lets up from there as O’Day dominates Porter classics like “”I Get a Kick Out of You,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and the wink-wink “All of You.”
Anita O’Day and The Three Sounds (1963): Sounds crazy but after all these years of listening to Anita O’Day, I reach for this album most frequently. In 1962, O’Day was saddled with drug problems and just about through with her Verve contract. She only sings on about half of the songs here, with the Three Sounds providing instrumentals for the rest. There’s something addictive about O’Day’s detachment on this record; it’s the very rare sound of her “phoning it in,” which of course sounds better than most singers when they’re trying. I consider it Anita O’Day’s equivalent of Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, providing the most beautiful wrinkles in a wasted fabric. I’ve talked to other O’Day fanatics who have the same feeling of affinity for it. Worth seeking out.
Anita O’Day at Mister Kelly’s (1958): Recorded in her hometown of Chicago and opening with the rarely-heard verse of “But Not For Me,” this nice nightclub date is notable for containing three tunes by Joe and Eileen Albany: “I Have a Reason For Living,” “My Love For You,” and the poignant “Loneliness is a Well.” O’Day goes out of her way to introduce the composers on each of these songs, causing one to wonder exactly what kind of backroom deal she struck with the Albanys. The person who previously owned this LP wrote an exclamation point on the track listing after “The Song Is You,” but it’s actually kind of a wack closer. Still, a good live record.
An Evening With Anita O’Day (1956): Hell yes, a very great nightclub recording from early on in her Verve contract. Stellar guitar work by Tal Farlow and Barney Kessel runs a close second to O’Day’s own impeccable singing on songs like “From This Moment On” and “Let’s Fall In Love.” The recording quality is outstanding, the songs are well-chosen, and O’Day even chimes in with an original—“Anita’s Blues.” It’s amazing how perfect O’Day’s voice could be in concert.