Anita O'Day

updated 08/14/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/14/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It's 2 in the afternoon, and jazz great Anita O'Day is lying in bed in a Manhattan apartment sipping a screwdriver. Resting from the rigors of twice-nightly performances, she aims an air conditioner at her face and chain-smokes unfiltered cigarettes. "It's my day off, and I'm getting bombed," she announces. No doubt she has been told that such behavior is bad for you, but then O'Day has been told a lot of things in her 69 years. "I was told I'd never even be a singer," she says. Then she suddenly opens her mouth and points down her throat "Look. No uvula. When I was 7, a doctor took it out by mistake when he removed my tonsils. I can't hold a note."

But she can still hold an audience. The years of bad behavior that earned O'Day the nickname Jezebel of Jazz have also served to season her remarkable talent. Never one of the biggest voices in the jazz world, O'Day is one of its great song stylists and improvisers. Nearly 50 years after she first gained fame as the lead vocalist for Gene Krupa's Big Band, she continues to wow the critics. Reviewing her recent show at Michael's Pub—which was extended from three weeks to seven—the New York Times hailed O'Day as "funny, swinging and convincingly the best jazz singer performing today." Her new LP, In a Mellow Tone—the first in 10 years—has garnered similar praise, and her autobiography, High Times Hard Times, written with George Eells, was reprinted in paperback this year.

It's a wonder that she lived to hear the accolades. Twice jailed for drug possession in the late '40s and early '50s, O'Day got hooked on heroin in 1954 and spent the next 12 years juggling life as a junkie and a singer. "I just went from shot to shot," says Anita, who kept on performing but can't remember too many details of that time. She does recall that drugs were very much part of the scene. "I had the fame, I wanted to play the game," she says. "People would knock at my door saying, 'I brought you a present, baby.' They thought they were doing me a favor." She estimates she spent well over $400,000 on drugs.

The party ended in 1966 when O'Day overdosed in the bathroom of a Los Angeles office building. A friend rushed her to a local hospital and later told Anita that the doctors there—unable to detect a heartbeat—thought for a moment that she was dead. But they managed to revive her. When she came to, O'Day decided to quit, cold turkey. She flew to Hawaii and ensconced herself at a fellow musician's house. "I stayed with this nice cat for five months just lying on the beach," she says. "When I got the sweats, I'd jump in the ocean. When I got chills, I lay in the sun. I felt terrible, but each day it got better."

Raised in Chicago during the Depression, O'Day grew up poor, the only child of a mother who worked at a meat packing plant and a father who left when O'Day was a year old. Anita says she always felt like excess baggage at home. "I thought my name was 'shut up' until I was 7," she says. "That's what my mother called me if I was in the way." Unhappy at home and in school, Anita hitchhiked to Muskegon, Mich., when she was 14 and entered a Walkathon—one of the brutal Depression-era endurance contests that attracted cash-poor young people by the thousands. With her mother's blessing, O'Day spent two years on the marathon circuit, once logging 97 straight days upright. She loved it. "I got fed seven times a day and I was having a ball. When you are 14, you don't hurt."

O'Day's crooning career began at a Walkathon, where she sang for extra money. After returning home to finish junior high school, she started frequenting Chicago nightclubs and soon got booked as a vocalist. Krupa saw her perform in 1939, when she was 19, and hired her in 1941 as his "canary." Together they produced some million-selling records, but Anita made only $50 a week. When the Big Band sound waned in the early '50s, she made a successful switch to jazz and started earning $100,000 per album, but much of it went for heroin, and her career began to slide. "I drank a lot, slept on everybody's couch and heard people say, 'Remember her? She used to be with...' I just waited for something to come up." She was rediscovered by the Japanese in the mid-'70s, and she still occasionally tours there.

Between tours she lives alone in a trailer park outside Palm Springs. "It might not be much, but it's my trailer and I own it," says Anita, who shares her three rooms with her Yorkshire terrier, Emily. "I got it down I'd rather be alone than with the wrong cat." Her first marriage, to drummer Don Carter when she was 17, was never consummated. "We lived with his mother," she says. "He was pretty, he was nice to me, and he taught me how to play the piano. I didn't know anything about sex—all he did was kiss me on the forehead every night." After divorcing Carter, she married golf pro Carl Hoff in 1943, but that marriage eventually foundered after a series of infidelities.

Now Anita says she's through with men, though some still seem interested in her. "I got one in the club following me around now, saying, 'Hi, baby. Let's have dinner.' I can't handle that. When you're 70, you don't play that game anymore." Childless (she had a number of abortions in her youth), Anita says she's glad she doesn't have any kids. "Ethel Kennedy dropped 11. There are enough people in the world. I did my part by raising dogs."

O'Day admits she has made a few concessions to age. "As you get older, you do everything you can that helps the scene. I capped my front teeth and lightened my hair, but that's it," she says. "I don't sell sex appeal. I sell sound." And though she's proud to have been off drugs for more than 20 years now, this canary has no intention of cleaning up her act completely. When told she still looks great, she replies, "Sometimes I think booze is what keeps me alive. It makes me swing."

This year Anita O'Day celebrates her 55th year as a singer, and she remains an uncompromising professional. "She can be unruly and difficult, and she'll get an edge on her sometimes," says Gordon Brisker, her tenor sax player, "but she's a real jazz artist, one of the originals." Looking forward to another tour of Japan this fall, O'Day is just glad to be working. "It's a very happy scene now," she says. "I'm making money, I'm playing it proper, and I've earned it."

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