Anita O’Day, who used a relatively narrow vocal range to create one of the most distinctive bodies of work in jazz singing, died Thursday at a convalescent hospital in Los Angeles. She was 87.
O’Day had been recovering from pneumonia.
Although her singing put her just a rung below the likes of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, O’Day’s private life was the one most discussed. She filled her 1981 memoir, “High Times Hard Times,” with tales of heroin addiction, back-alley abortions, rape, abusive relationships and financial woes.
A comeback attempt in the 1990s that found her performing in L.A. clubs was as much a celebration of her as a survivor as it was of her unique vocal phrasing on standards such as “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Detour Ahead.”
O’Day’s breezy and swinging style, which included few sustained notes yet was never quite scat singing, influenced singers such as June Christy and Chris Connor; few singers ever sang so fast and with such precision.
A docu on O’Day was completed in recent years and she had been touring New York and London recently. Her final album, “Indestructible!,” was a collection of recordings made between February 2004 and November 2005.
Born Anita Belle Colton in 1919 in Chicago to an unmarried show couple on the run from Kansas City, Mo., she left home at 12 and changed her name to O’Day.
Without ever taking a singing lesson, she performed with bands at dance marathon contests, even being dragged off the bandstand by truant officers taking her back to junior high.
O’Day took an unlikely path to becoming a singer. She performed as a dancer in a chorus line and subbed for the big band’s “canary.” Later a comedian friend got her booked at a jazz club where he emceed and O’Day was able to see the likes of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Martha Raye perform. With her first husband, Don Carter, she rose through Chicago’s clubs billed as the Princess of Swing (her nickname later became the Jezebel of Jazz).
An editor at the jazz mag Downbeat, Carl Cons, became a major supporter of O’Day and booked her at a club he had just opened, the Off-Beat Club. Many local and traveling jazz musicians would hang out at the venue and it was where Gene Krupa first heard O’Day, hiring her for his band and providing, in March 1941, her first opportunity to record.
In 1944, O’Day moved to Stan Kenton’s band before going solo two years later. In 1952 she began a 10-year stint on the Verve label, where she made her most important recordings and, unlike any of her peers, was based in Los Angeles. From the late ’60s on, her recordings were sporadic and often live sessions.
O’Day gained a reputation for shocking fans and her comrades. She was arrested for marijuana possession in 1952 and, while awaiting her trial, got her first taste of heroin.
She overdosed several times during her 16-year addiction, often spending time behind bars.
In late 1996, O’Day fell down the stairs of her Hemet home after a drinking binge. She left the hospital in a wheelchair and didn’t walk for nearly a year. Her right hand was paralyzed, and she felt she had lost her singing voice.
Although she blamed the complications on poor hospital care, O’Day gave up alcohol and returned to the stage in 1998.
O’Day had no children and no immediate family, according to manager Robbie Cavolina.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)