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Anita O'Day: The Essence of Cool

Getty Images / Redferns / David Redfern / Staff

Anita O'Day: The Essence of Cool

Anita O'Day was the essence of 1940s and '50s cool. The jazz songstress – whose influences included the likes of Martha Raye, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Mildred Bailey – carved out her own place in jazz history with a style that still feels fresh, original and unique. On the fifth anniversary of O’Day’s death, we look back on the career of this atypical “girl singer.”

Leaving home at just 14 to find fame, Chicago native O'Day started her career touring the country as a dance marathon contestant. Within a few years, she turned to singing and eventually landed a gig at popular Chicago club The Off-Beat. It was there that she was discovered by legendary drummer Gene Krupa. He liked what he heard, but his band already had a singer. He promised to get in touch with O'Day if he was ever in need of a new vocalist.

She didn't have to wait long – a couple years later, Krupa was back. He needed a singer, and O'Day joined his band in 1941. Her career began to take off immediately, with a nod from Down Beat magazine as "New Star of the Year."

O'Day worked with Krupa – as well as Woody Herman and Stan Kenton – for five years before going solo. Her solo career was a smash success, with 17 classic albums recorded under the Norgran and Verve labels. But perhaps the highlight of that career was the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Her star performance was recorded for the documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day, and her vocals still sound perfect.

Like many of her jazz cohorts and contemporaries, O’Day struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. She nearly died of a heroin overdose in the late ‘60s. But unlike so many other artists of the era (Billie Holiday comes to mind), O’Day ultimately did not succumb to her addictions. Somehow she moved beyond them and – before her death at age 87 – went on to act, write her memoirs, record more albums… and, of course, sing.