One of the most talented singers to emerge from the swing era, Anita O'Day was a master at improvisation and an impressive jazz vocalist. Hard-swinging and hard-living, she had her own unique style that was unmatched by any of her contemporaries. Her vocal abilities could make even the most recognizable standards seem fresh and innovative.
Born Anita Belle Colton in Chicago in 1919, she spent her early years on the dance marathon circuit. She later discovered that she could sing and changed her last name to O'Day, finding work with Max Miller's band in Chicago. After bad experiences during brief tenures with Benny Goodman and Raymond Scott, she was hired by Gene Krupa in 1941, where she finally found a good home.
Together with trumpeter Roy Eldridge, with whom she had a definite on-stage chemistry, O'Day contributed to some of Krupa's biggest hits of that time, including ''Let Me Off Uptown'' and ''Green Eyes.'' Ill-feelings eventually developed between O'Day and Eldridge, the cause of which was never made public, and she decided to leave the band in 1943, briefly joining Woody Herman. She soon returned to Krupa, though, only to have the band break-up shortly thereafter when Krupa was arrested on trumped-up charges of marijuana possession.
O'Day quickly found another home with Stan Kenton's progressive jazz outfit, where she sang on Kenton's first hit recording, ''And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine.'' She left Kenton after only a year to rejoin Krupa, who had formed a new band, but didn't stay long, deciding to strike out on her own in 1946. She recorded for Signature in 1947 and London in 1950 but didn't go into the studio on a regular basis until signing with Verve in 1952.
O'Day struggled at first. It wasn't until the release of her 1955 LP, Anita, (the very first LP released by Verve) that she finally found success as a solo artist. Soon she was in demand at major jazz festivals, and she began to work with other top performers, such as Louis Armstrong, George Shearing, Oscar Peterson, Billy May, Cal Tjader, Count Basie, and Thelonious Monk. Her addiction to heroin, though, began to take its toll in the early 1960s and her career after 1963 became erratic. She physically collapsed in 1967 and spent the next three years trying to kick her drug and alcohol addictions.
After a comeback at the 1970 Berlin Jazz Festival, O'Day recorded several more albums, some on her own label, Emily Records. In 1981 she released her autobiography, High Times, Hard Times. Though her voice gradually began to deteriorate, she continued performing and recording throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Anita O'Day currently lives in Southern California and still sings professionally.