A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers - By Will Friedwald
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Singers have an unusual relationship with the rest of the music scene. They’re often stereotyped as knowing less about music than anybody else in the band. (The old joke goes: How do you know when a singer is ringing your doorbell? When she doesn’t know when to come in.) Anita O’Day (1919-2006) challenged this kind of thinking.
In 1941, 21-year-old Anita took to the road for the first time, as the chick singer with the nationally known Gene Krupa and His Orchestra. At that time, “chirps,” as they were affectionately if condescendingly named, were essentially a kind of window dressing for a big band. O’Day was one of the first band singers to declare emphatically that she was, in fact, a genuine musician, a real soloist, comparable to Roy Eldridge, the trumpet god who would shortly join her in the Krupa band.
In O’Day’s music the emphasis isn’t on voice or melody, it’s about taking a song and styling it: swinging it, improvising on it. Yet, as her improvising shows, she knew her harmonies: Her scat solo on “Night and Day” (1959) is a typically brilliant O’Day invention, with the singer leaping over Cole Porter’s chromaticisms like Tarzan swinging through the trees.
The essence of her singing, the sonic quality of her voice, is about pure essentials: When O’Day hits a note, you just get the pure note and no vibrato. She claimed that when she first began singing professionally (around 1936), she discovered that some years earlier a careless doctor had sliced off her uvula while removing her tonsils. This made it difficult for her to sustain notes, which she did only very rarely: When she holds a note at the end of “Travelin’ Light,” it works because it’s such a departure for her. “I can’t get a sound with the air back there because there’s nothing to vibrate it,” she wrote. “That’s the reason I got into singing eighth and sixteenth rather than quarter notes. Instead of singing ‘laaaaa’ I’d sing ‘la-la-la-la’ to keep it moving.” She used syncopation to break up long laaaaas into short la-la-la-las in a way that’s sublimely rhythmic and swinging.
Her greatest period, recording-wise, is the decade or so in which she worked with producer Norman Granz (and, briefly, with his successors at Verve). You can hear her applying this technique on practically every song, as when she turns “who will buy” into “who-oo-oo will buy” in the last eight bars of “Love for Sale” or “Speak Low” into “Speak lo-ho-ho” and likewise in the coda (“myself to you-hoo-hoo … “) of “Body and Soul.” She once said that in order to get the most out of her relatively narrow vocal range, she had to break the scale up into her own microtones within the scale\u2014to create new notes in places where there never were any notes before.
In matters of keys, chord changes, and tempos, O’Day knew way more about music than your average horn player. But at the same time, much of what she did communicates that she wasn’t of the same breed as ordinary musicians\u2014that she does, in fact, belong to another group entirely.
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