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Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Jazz Singer Anita O'Day


Let's continue our 30th anniversary retrospective and return to 1987 for an interview with jazz singer Anita O'Day. An interview I'll never forget because I love her singing and because, as you'll hear, she did not hold back from saying what was on her mind.

O'Day inspired the so-called cool jazz singers of the '50s. The music critic Will Friedwald described O'Day as always the greatest, the coolest, the hippest and the swinging-est (ph). O'Day first became known in 1941 when she joined the Gene Krupa band. She later sang with the Stan Kenton and Benny Goodman bands and many small groups.

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 means dough. And she hoped to make plenty of it. Let's start with this 1960 recording of "That Old Feeling."


ANITA O'DAY: (Singing) I saw you last night and got that old feeling. When you came in sight, I got the old feeling. The moment that you danced by, I felt a thrill. And when you caught my eye, my heart stood still. Once again, I seem to feel that old yearning. And I knew the spark of love was still burning. There'll be no new romance for me. It's foolish to start for that old feeling is still in my heart. I saw you last night, got that old feeling.


GROSS: Anita O'Day, welcome to FRESH AIR. 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. 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, do-won do-won (ph). You know what I'm talking about?

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...

O'DAY: That's the (unintelligible) that hangs...

GROSS: ...Overhang in the back of your mouth.

O'DAY: ...Down in the back of the throat, where you see the cartoons and it shows their singing and that little things going lahhh (ph).

GROSS: (Laughter).

O'DAY: Well, that's gone. I was in the hospital for just a regular bit of tonsils or something. I think I was 7 years old. And my mother said - years later, I said, you know, I want to be a singer, and I 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: 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 because you find a way to do it because where there's a will, you know.

GROSS: When you were singing with big bands, you were usually the only woman in the band. And I think it was always a source of pride for you that you could, you know, keep up with the men in every way. In your book, you wrote that you were proud that you carried your own bags. You paid your own checks when you were with the group or band.

O'DAY: Yes. Yeah, I sort of became one of the guys because that was the only way to play it, you know? I mean, I guess you could play it girl. But I haven't played girl yet. Let's see, I'm 68. I'm going to play girl next year because I'm always too busy. I've been wearing slacks since 1932.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1987 interview with Anita O'Day. After a break, we'll continue our 30th anniversary retrospective with more of the O'Day interview, and we'll hear my 1987 interview with jazz pianist Jay McShann, who helped launch Charlie Parker's career and was at the piano for our interview. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


O'DAY: (Singing) You'd be so nice to come home to. You'd be so nice by the fire. While the breeze on high sang a lullaby, you'd be all that I could desire. Under stars chilled by the winter, under an August moon burning above, you'd be so nice.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective and pick up where we left off in the middle of my 1987 interview with jazz singer Anita O'Day. She got her start in the Big Band era with Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman and Stan Kenton and went on to a solo career.


GROSS: I want to play the first really big hit that you have - play an excerpt of it. This was - you recorded this in 1941 with Roy...

O'DAY: With, Roy, yeah, I do it every night. Yes, I call it my nostalgia portion (laughter). And I do "Let Me Off Uptown."

GROSS: What's the story behind the record? Who - how did you get to do a duet on this?

O'DAY: Oh, I have no idea. Gene bought it from somebody who made the arrangement and taught us how to do it. It belonged to Gene. It was in his books.

GROSS: The record sold, I think, a million and half copies.

O'DAY: That's the one. Gene bought a house in Yonkers.


O'DAY: Yeah. That's right.

GROSS: Well, let's play an excerpt of it. This is my guest, Anita O'Day. It was recorded in 1941.

O'DAY: Right.


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, oh, you've got to shout it - let me off uptown. If it's rhythm that you feel, then it's nothing to conceal. Oh, you've got to spiel it - let me off uptown. Rib joints, juke joints, hep joints - where could a fella go to top it? If you want to pitch a ball and you can't afford a hall, oh, you've got to call this - let me off uptown.

ELDRIDGE: (Singing) Anita, oh, Anita.

Say, I feel something.

O'DAY: What you feel, Roy, the heat?

ELDRIDGE: No, it must be that uptown rhythm. I feel like blowing.

O'DAY: Well, blow, Roy, blow.

ELDRIDGE: (Playing trumpet).

GROSS: Anita O'Day, how did that record change your life?

O'DAY: Well, it didn't change it too quickly because at that time there was no union for girl singers. I made $7.50.

GROSS: From a million-and-a-half-selling record?

O'DAY: That's right. He built a house in Yonkers (laughter).

GROSS: You've 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 performer 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've 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.


O'DAY: Yeah.

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 when - that your involvement with alcohol and drugs had anything to do with wanting to keep up with the men - as we were talking about before - and wanting to be as tough as they were?

O'DAY: That's a good question - never thought about it that way. No, I do it because I enjoy it.


O'DAY: 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 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: That helped. That's showbiz (laughter). They come to look at the girl that went to jail for smoking dope. I don't say that happens today because it's too popular today, and the kids grew up, and they say, well, that's a scam, you know. But at that time, that was part of it. Man, I'd work a club, and they'd be standing out down the street and around the corner, getting in to see the girl just got out of jail.

GROSS: So it just didn't matter for you when you were hooked? Or from...

O'DAY: I worked all the time.

GROSS: Did people know?

O'DAY: Everybody knew.

GROSS: Everybody knew.

O'DAY: I worked those kind of places.

GROSS: Well, did it affect your performance? I mean, could you tell?

O'DAY: I don't know. I just did it. I was asked to do 50 minutes, I do 50 minutes. That was my job.

GROSS: 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 went 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 things 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: Really? This is what...

O'DAY: You can - I was on "60 Minutes," and Harry Reasoner asked me the same thing. He says, that day when you were on "Jazz On A Summer's Day," and you were out there in that big picture hat and the breeze was blowing those real ostrich feathers on top of it - he says to me, were you high? And I looked at him, and I looked back at the little film they were showing me, and I says, I would say yes (laughter).

GROSS: Well, you know, what I really wanted to know was how you - you were 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: Well, 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 it off the shoulder. So I got to thinking.

So I lied prone, and I kind of, like, thought, what would you wear? I was due at 5 o'clock. So I wore a cocktail - afternoon cocktail party dress with the black sheets 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. (Laughter) that's a joke - O'Day. Terry. Hello, Terry, are you there?

GROSS: (Laughter).

O'DAY: Yeah, that's what happened, love.

GROSS: Oh, goodness.

O'DAY: Yep. That was it.

GROSS: Anita O'Day recorded in 1987. She died in 2006 at the age of 87. After we take a short break, we'll hear my 1987 interview with jazz pianist Jay McShann, who led the band in which Charlie Parker first gained attention. We recorded the interview at the piano so McShann could play some songs. This is FRESH AIR.


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