Music collectors troll and stumble through dusty bins on that never ending search for their brand of gold. The kind of gold that comes in shiny silver compact discs or black vinyl platters. The eyes scan the jacket or the case and lock onto a long sought title or something familiar that strikes a chord as a smile crosses the face.
I had the recent joy of picking up the Mosaic Records box set of the The Complete Anita O’Day Verve / Clef Sessions. 9 discs and 192 songs of pure artistry by Ms. O’Day.
The Mosaic Box Set
Born Anita Belle Colton, O’Day was known for her impeccable timing and a range of dynamics that has rarely been matched. She shunned the “girl singer” image and preferred to be known as a jazz musician. A cool cat indeed, O’Day left the evening gown at home and wore a band jacket (just like the guys) and a skirt. She changed her name to O’Day as it is pig-Latin for “dough” as in money.
Closely associated with the West Coast “cool” school of jazz and lumped in that way with Mel Torme, she knew some drumming, and while she was known to swing, she developed great improvisational skills in both melody and rhythm. She was fast to admit that the legendary Martha Raye was her main vocal inspiration but she also gave a nod of respect to Ella and Billie. In her bio, she maintained that a badly done tonsillectomy as a child marred her ability to sing vibrato causing her to develop better rhythm on shorter, but more percussive, notes.
In the mid-’40s, Anita’s star rose with her work with the Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton orchestras. She was trying to make her mark as a solo performer but was having a tough time of it. She was recording on unknown small labels, she was in a lousy marriage, and even went through a prison term in 1953 for heroin possession. But 1952 turned her around when Norman Granz signed her to Clef Records. (Granz had founded Clef Records in 1946 just after the war. Ten years later, in 1956, he started Verve and merged the two labels.)
Fast forward to the 1956 and the release of her first 12-inch LP, Anita, on Granz’s new Verve label. (The Japanese release (pictured above) was titled “This Is Anita“.) With full orchestration backing her up, Anita’s talents shone bright. Her versions of the classic ballads “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and “Time After Time” absolutely blew me away.
O’Day went on to record 14 more albums for Granz and even included a reunion with her old boss, Krupa. The albums covered a range of small group collaborations with jazz greats like Oscar Peterson, Barney Kessell, and Cal Tjader.
A Jazz Artist
As much as I admire the use of O’Day’s vocal talents on heavy jazz arrangements like Hammerstein’s “Lover, Come Back to Me” or big-band powerhouses like Porter’s “You’re the Top”, I’m a sucker for the soulful ballad. The aforementioned “Nightingale”, “Time After Time”, and Sammy Cahn / Jule Styne’s “I Fall In Love Too Easily” make me stop and listen.
There’s a lot of Anita O’Day recordings out there and, for the casual listener, I’d recommend steering clear of some her earlier small label releases on Signature or Coral (although serious students of jazz history will note her development arc here). The Mosaic box set is pricey at just under $200 – so look for it used.