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The Best...The Beautiful...and the Bizarre | GOOD TIMES

They Said She'd Never Sing Again

July 18, 1999|Ed Leibowitz

It took considerable persuasive power for Alan Eichler to raise Anita O'Day from the dead. On Christmas Eve, 1996, he got a call from a hospital. They'd found his name and number on a piece of paper in her wallet. "She was tied down by her hands and feet like an animal," says Eichler, the Hollywood manager/publicist for O'Day, Patti Page, Ruth Brown, Nellie Lutcher and other chanteuses in twilight.

"She was medicated and drugged. They had taken her teeth out. They said she had blood poisoning. She had pneumonia. Because of her history and her age, because you're old, they just let you die. The doctors told me she couldn't live through the night," he says.

O'Day had been diagnosed with permanent alcoholic dementia, in part because she would mutter about leaving the hospital to fly to Washington, D.C., to collect $20,000. She had either read the National Endowment for the Arts letter wrong or had confused the location during months of illness and binges. O'Day was actually scheduled to receive her NEA American Jazz Master Fellowship award in Chicago, along with two others. "I am delighted to join you in congratulating Billy Higgins, Milt Jackson, and Anita O'Day," President Clinton wrote on White House stationery only four days before Eichler found O'Day strapped to the bed.

He was not about to surrender his client of 20 years. He would cheat death in the same manner he had coaxed Yma Sumac out of Peruvian retirement: through sheer promotional force.

"I called up the hospital administration office. This was right after Mel Torme's stroke, Frank [Sinatra] was still in the news with his illness, and I was writing her obituary. Then--I'm such a bitch!--I said I'm going to have to explain how she was admitted with a broken arm and died. And the next thing I knew, she was in intensive care."

On June 22, the 79-year-old O'Day completed her professional resurrection, headlining with the Manhattan Transfer at New York's Avery Fisher Hall for the 1999 JVC Jazz Festival. The Mosaic label has released a CD box set of her landmark Verve recordings of the 1950s and '60s, while Verve itself has prepared a new compilation. O'Day sings "God Bless the Child" on the upcoming album by Sade's band, Sweetback. And Bruce Weber has photographed her for Vanity Fair.

To prepare her for Avery Fisher, Eichler booked his client every Tuesday night during April and May at L.A.'s Atlas Supper Club. There, she did more than massage her chops with a competent trio. Her hair dyed blond and feathered to perfection, her eyes glistening behind false lashes, O'Day commanded her trio like a colonel deploying artillery. With her atrophied right hand wrapped in black lace, she calibrated her own prodigious steps up and down the register for "Sweet Georgia Brown," or hastened the bassist's rhythmic shift as the Beatles' "Yesterday" segued to Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach's "Yesterdays."

Onstage, O'Day's posture was perfect. Her chest swelled forward and her chunky heels tapped time, but she needed a stiff supportive arm to dismount. During breaks, she signed publicity stills and her autobiography, "High Times Hard Times," a black Sharpie in her uncertain left hand.

As she chatted with an admirer, a screen dropped above the stage. The movie reel rolled, and O'Day looked up to see a black-and-white version of her younger self in all her postwar splendor. That Anita sings "Let Me Off Uptown" with Gene Krupa's band, strutting and swirling alongside trumpeter Roy Eldridge on a taxi dancer's legs. Her instrument is sweeter, although her vocal maneuverings, coming before her celebrated Verve years, are infinitely more plain.

All the while, Eichler swoops past the cocktail tables, delivering breathless dispatches from the front: "She's singing with no bottom teeth." . . . "That's her nurse from the retirement home over there." . . . "They said she'd never sing again."

*

Anita O'Day will return to the Atlas this month; (213) 380-8400.

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