[JPL] Anita O'Day could be elegant, but her fortitude was what made her great. By Don Heckman

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Sun Nov 26 07:36:07 EST 2006

Substance, not style, set her apart
Anita O'Day could be elegant, but her fortitude was what made her great.
By Don Heckman
Special to The Times

November 25, 2006

Anita O'Day, who died Thursday at 87, was never just another big-band
canary. That's not to say that she lacked the physical attributes to compete
with the other Swing era vocalists ‹ frilly eye candy occasionally taking
the microphone to offer jaunty riffs on the latest pop tunes ‹ who sat on
stage with the Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Harry James ensembles.

There's a photo of O'Day on the cover of her autobiography, "High Times,
Hard Times," in which she is perched, nylon-clad legs crossed, on top of a
piano in a pose that could have been an inspiration for Michelle Pfeiffer's
sexy lounge singer in "The Fabulous Baker Boys."

The elegance was always a veneer covering an inner toughness, the hard life
lessons learned that made her a superb jazz singer, one of the best of her
generation ‹ or of any generation. At a time when most female vocalists
tended to emphasize the sweet timbres of their voice, she chose to follow a
path blazed by the one major jazz singer who emphasized message over medium
‹ Billie Holiday.

Like Holiday, O'Day combined the soaring freedom of a jazz instrumentalist
with the storytelling lyricism of a poet. She often said she was a
"stylist," not a "singer," which was correct, but only in a minimal sense.

>From the moment she broke through to a national audience via the briskly
swinging encounter with trumpeter Roy Eldridge in the Gene Krupa Band's
recording of "Let Me Off Uptown" to her splendid Verve recordings of the
'50s, and her comebacks in the '70s and again in the '90s, she was instantly
recognizable, an utter original. Yes, "stylist," but much more. Like Frank
Sinatra, she balanced the rhythmic songs that were generally considered to
be her forte with an approach to ballads that varied from seductive intimacy
to sardonic irony.

When I wrote about her in 1990, she was as feisty as ever, personally ‹
discussing another hard-luck encounter with the vagaries of the record
business ‹ and still singing with the killer phrasing that made every song
an adventure.

Eight years later, I reviewed her again, this time after she had made an
astonishing return to singing after a near-fatal encounter with pneumonia
and blood poisoning. And again she was remarkable, as she was in her final
performances before her death ‹ to the very end, never just another big-band


On the Web

To sample Anita O'Day's music:

anitaoday.com ‹ her official website has selections from almost all of her

vervemusicgroup.com ‹ has samples from the many albums she recorded for

amazon.com ‹ has short samples from her numerous recordings.

barnesandnoble.com ‹ also has samples from O'Day recordings

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