What We Talk About When We Talk About Anita O’Day

Anita O'Day SingingYou name it, Anita O’Day survived it. Rape? Abortions? A decade-long addiction to heroin? Being pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital? All of it. She even underwent a botched tonsillectomy that left her with an uvula, which meant that she was incapable of sustaining a vibrato. A singer without vibrato? It’s surprisingly rich and modern, even as her best performances find her lost in a haze of drugs and the music. Just watch her legendary Newport Jazz Festival performance. For all of her demons, nothing interrupted her talent.

And in the final summing up, as she went on tour for her memoir High Times, Hard Times (has any memoir had a jazzier title?), she was both amused by and unapologetic about her personal shortcomings—and, in the 1980s, not apologizing for her serious drug problem was a typical instance of her casual courage. Arrested for pot possession in 1947, she moved on to heroin, writing in High Times, Hard Times, “If they were going to call me a junkie, I figured I might as well be one.”

She started out touring America as a white big band singer with black trumpeter Roy Eldridge, shocking at the time and something that she seems unconcerned by. When, during an interview with Bryant Gumbel, he says, “Your life story involves rape, failed relationships, drugs, multiple abortions,” she famously replied, with a steely smile revealing her overbite, “That’s just the way it went down, Bryant.”

That interview also includes a wonderful exchange, when Gumbel questions her about being pronounced dead. “Oh yeah,” she says as if she’d forgotten. “They thought it was a heart attack. It was just an overdose.”

She also finally kicked her addiction, not in a rehab facility but by going to Hawaii, calmly saying that if you’re going to be miserable, sweaty, and panicky, you might as well be on the beach where you can throw yourself into the ocean and forget for a while.

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