Farewell, Miss Anita

Anita O'Day About five or six years ago, I found myself in severely reduced circumstances. The SAG commercial strike and ensuing fallout had eviscerated my bank account; for the first time in a long time, I found myself unable to scrape up the considerable cash required to get my usual cut and color (single-process, nothing fancy) at the high-falutin' salon. (Well, it was that or booze, and you can pick the horse that's gonna win that race.)

My boyfriend at the time, The Youngster, had found an unusual hair stylist in Hollywood. Tony's initial allure was the 24-hour service he promised in his yellow pages ad, and The Youngster needed a 6am haircut or somesuch to make an 8am appointment.

It turned out that one needed to give Tony a bit of advance notice to book 16 of the 24, but not much. It also turned out that Tony, who had been Stylist to the Stars back in the day, charged a mere $20 for a ladies' cut, $40 if you threw in a color and brought your own. Which I did, happily.

One day, The Youngster came back from a cut (no color) all a-fluffle. Tony had let slip the name of one of his more famous clients, hell, maybe his sole famous client: Anita O'Day.

If you are not a jazz fan, the name might not mean anything to you. Anita O'Day never got big-big like Ella or Billie or Dinah or Sarah or any of the one-name songstresses. No matter. A complete iconoclast in her phrasing, her dress, her very life, she was she-bop itself, jazz-cool from her head to her toes. As one of the talking heads in the docu of her life points out (trailer on YouTube), she was the first vocalist on the Verve label, the first, and what she lacked in vibrato she made up for in every other way. She had a way of bending a song to her will so that it was almost unrecognizable...and yet, once you heard it, you had a hard time imagining it sung any other way.

My personal favorite was her rendition of "Johnny One-Note," an old showtune she grabbed hold of and forever blew the hokum from. The most famous example (caught on film, anyway) is probably her dazzling take on "Tea for Two." (You can catch a clip of her famous performance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival here on YouTube, and how exactly did we obsess over people before YouTube, anyway?)

Of course, I wasted no time blabbing my love for "Miss Anita" (Tony's name for her), and Tony, ever cool, mentioned he might be able to arrange things so I could meet her. Sure enough, a month or so later, I got a call from him suggesting I hightail it over.

I tried to be cool when we were introduced and failed miserably; for her part, Miss Anita was as down to earth as you could want musical idol to be. Plus which she looked twenty times better than I did. Thirty. It was pouring rain, and she was getting ready to call a cab when Tony flashed me a look. I immediately offered myself up as chauffeur, and moments later, we were tooling over to her apartment in my Corolla, me and Miss Anita O'Day.

Me!!! Inches away from an 80-something star who had sung with Benny Goodman, who had beat heroin and hooch, who had gone from from the heights to the pits and back and was just as nice and normal as the day is long...except for that glow. Star wattage.

I have no idea what we talked about during that ten-minute ride; I only know it ended too soon and cheered me for months afterward.

Despite Tony's assurance that we'd someday take in a show, that day never materialized. She was ill or I was ill, it was a time of illness, I guess. But it's almost better that the last real-life memory I have of Miss Anita is of her climbing out of my old car in the rain. I like my stars up close and in person, and sometimes, even a little damp...

xxx c

Anita O'Day, 1919–2006 (official website | wikipedia) Image of Anita O'Day at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival from the York University website.