Who the hell shows up at a midnight jam session at the Loews Sheraton Theater in Greenwich Village wearing white, elbow-length gloves, a little, flowered print dress and a hat that looks like an inverted birdbath? Who dares to show up on stage like that where guys like Zoot Sims and Conte Condoli and Al Cohn are playing? And then proceeds to not merely hold her own on the scat vocals, but to actually kick some ass up there?
Blond, blue-eyed, sultry-voiced Anita, that's who. Anita O'Day. The "girl singer. The one who grew up in front of the Gene Krupa band where she learned to go way beyond "perky and to trade eights and fours with even the wildest drummers and with the hippest trumpet players, like Roy Eldridge, and to re-phrase even the most tried and true lyrics in a whole new, hip new way.
The first night I saw her, in 1959, she was just hitting the top of her game, breaking out from the structure of the big band and really exploring her freedom with a small backup group. The trio started off the set with a run-you-off-the-road, up-tempo treatment of "Them There Eyes. After about four choruses, Anita strode out onto the stage, the big blue eyes peeking out from beneath the big white hat, looking like she'd just come from a garden party in Connecticut. She hit her mark in the center of the trio, dropped her weight back onto her heels and fell instantly into the groove. She never slurred or mispronounced a word, even at that speed. Oh, she twisted them, she bent the lyrics around her gloved little finger. But she never flubbed a lyric, never blew a syllable. I thought I'd heard every version of "Honeysuckle Rose. It's an old song. But in Anita's hands, it was all new.
And her treatment of "Star Eyes well, the lyrics just seemed to melt in her mouth. That was the other thing about her. Although she was very feminine, I didn't really think she was particularly sexy, until I heard her sing that song. Something about the way she placed a note somewhere in the middle of her throat and in back of her tongue vibrated in a way that just went right into your libido and said, "Hello there, big boy.
I went to hear her with her trio again a few months later at the Half Note. It was the perfect size room for her, although she had the ability to turn even a huge outdoor amphitheater into a smoky little bistro. Once again, up there above the narrow bar, there she was with the gloves and the hat. Black this time to match her little black cocktail dress. All she needed was a silver martini cocked in one hand and a long cigarette-holder in the other to make a Vogue cover shot.
Movie star props aside, she wasand of course, still isa consummate musician. Her bebop version of a vibrato is about as hip as a singer can get. Chris Conner and June Christy were doing it too. But Anita took it just a little further. Instead of just being sexy, it was sexy/funny. And of course always very musical.
Anita O'Day has outlasted just about everybody else from her era. I have no idea how old she is now but I heard her on a new CD recently recorded live in a club in L.A. and, though her voice has grown noticeably deeper and huskier, her phrasing and her time feeling are as sharp and crisp as ever. And just as hip. That's the very first thing anyone would ever say about Anita O'Day. She is one very hip chick.