Anita Belle Colton (October 18, 1919 – November 23, 2006), known professionally as Anita O'Day, was an American jazz singer and self proclaimed “song stylist” widely admired for her sense of rhythm and dynamics, and her early big band appearances that shattered the traditional image of the "girl singer". Refusing to pander to any female stereotype, O'Day presented herself as a "hip" jazz musician, wearing a band jacket and skirt as opposed to an evening gown. She changed her surname from Colton to O'Day, pig Latin for "dough", slang for money.
O'Day, along with Mel Tormé, is often grouped with the West Coast cool school of jazz. Like Tormé, O'Day had some training in jazz drums (courtesy of her first husband Don Carter); her longest musical collaboration was with jazz drummer John Poole. While maintaining a central core of hard swing, O'Day's skills in improvisation of rhythm and melody rank her among the pioneers of bebop.
She cited Martha Raye as the primary influence on her vocal style, also expressing admiration for Mildred Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. She always maintained that the accidental excision of her uvula during a childhood tonsillectomy left her incapable of vibrato, and unable to maintain long phrases. That botched operation, she claimed, forced her to develop a more percussive style based on short notes and rhythmic drive. However, when she was in good voice she could stretch long notes with strong crescendos and a telescoping vibrato, e.g. her live version of "Sweet Georgia Brown" at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, captured in Bert Stern's film Jazz on a Summer's Day.
Anita Belle Colton (who later took the surname "O'Day") was born to Irish parents, James and Gladys M. (née Gill) Colton in Kansas City, Missouri, and raised in Chicago, Illinois, during the Great Depression. Colton took the first chance to leave her unhappy 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. In 1934, she began touring the Midwest as a marathon dance contestant.
In 1936, she left the endurance contests, determined to become a professional singer. She started out as a chorus girl in such Uptown venues as the Celebrity Club and the Vanity Fair and then found work as a singer and waitress at the Ball of Fire, the Vialago, and the Planet Mars. At the Vialago, O'Day met the drummer Don Carter, who introduced her to music theory; they wed in 1937. Her first big break came in 1938 when Down Beat editor Carl Cons hired her to work at his new club at 222 North State Street, the Off-Beat, which became a popular hangout for musicians. Also performing at the Off-Beat was the Max Miller Quartet, which backed O'Day for the first ten days of her stay there. While performing at the Off Beat, she met Gene Krupa, who promised to call her if Irene Daye, then his vocalist, ever left his band. In 1939, O'Day was hired as vocalist for Miller's Quartet, which had a stay at the Three Deuces club in Chicago.
The call from Krupa came in early 1941. Of the 34 sides she recorded with Krupa, it was "Let Me Off Uptown", a novelty duet with Roy Eldridge, that became her first big hit. The same year, Down Beat named O'Day "New Star of the Year". In 1942, she appeared with the Krupa band in two "soundies" (short musical films originally made for jukeboxes), singing "Thanks for the Boogie Ride" and "Let Me Off Uptown". The same year Down Beat magazine readers voted her into the top five big band singers. O'Day came in fourth, with Helen O'Connell first, Helen Forrest second, Billie Holiday third, and Dinah Shore fifth. O'Day married golf pro and jazz fan Carl Hoff in 1942.
When Krupa's band broke up after he was arrested in 1943 for marijuana possession, O'Day joined Woody Herman for a month-long gig at the Hollywood Palladium, followed by two weeks at the Orpheum. Unwilling to tour with another big band, she left Herman after the Orpheum engagement and finished out the year as a solo artist. Despite her initial misgivings about the compatibility of their musical styles, she joined Stan Kenton's band in April 1944. During her 11 months with Kenton, O'Day recorded 21 sides, both transcription and commercial, and appeared in a Universal Pictures short Artistry in Rhythm (1944). "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine" (1944) became a huge seller and put Kenton's band on the map. She also appeared in one soundie with Kenton, performing "I'm Going Mad for a Pad" and "Tabby the Cat". O'Day later said "My time with Stanley helped nurture and cultivate my innate sense of chord structure." In 1945, she rejoined Krupa's band and stayed almost a year. The reunion yielded only 10 sides. After leaving Krupa late in 1946, O'Day again became a solo artist.
During the late 1940s, O'Day was trying to achieve popular success without sacrificing her identity as a jazz singer. During this period she recorded two dozen sides, mostly for small labels. Among the more notable recordings from this time are "Hi Ho Trailus Boot Whip", "Key Largo", "How High the Moon", and "Malaguena". While living with husband Carl Hoff in Los Angeles in March 1947, two undercover policemen came to their home during a party at which Dizzy Gillespie was playing from the branches of a tree in their front yard. They found a small bag of marijuana, for which Anita and Carl were arrested. On August 11, Judge Harold B. Landreth found them guilty and handed down 90-day sentences.
After her jail stint, O'Day performed with Woody Herman's Herd and the Stan Kenton Artistry In Rhythm Orchestra. Her career was back on the upswing in September 1948 when she sang with Count Basie at the Royal Roost in New York City, resulting in five airchecks. What secured O'Day's place in the jazz pantheon, however, were the 17 albums she recorded for Norman Granz's Norgran and Verve labels between 1952 and 1962.