My favorite Anita O'Day album for Verve is Anita O'Day and Billy May Swing Rodgers and Hart. Interestingly, O'Day hated it. Then again, she also disdained Billy May for a variety of reasons. And the feeling was mutual. Recorded in June 1960, the album intermingles ferocious band arrangements and tender string charts on some of the American Songbook's most novel tunes. In nearly every case, O'Day's interpretation is bursting with peppery swing and cool seduction.
O'Day's scrunched-face reaction to the date persisted over time. Even in 2004, when author James Gavin visited O'Day to play the remastered CD for her to add color to his fine liner notes, the singer was ambivalent and edgy. Writes Jim:
"I asked if she had picked any of the songs. 'I think they just laid 'em on me,' she said, shrugging. Five years earlier she had told me more: 'I had them rehearsed at my house a couple of times so I could hear the structure. I learn the words as a poem, and I learn the chords the way it was constructed. The game is to put 'em together, and don't falter! But I had no chops, so I had to, like, fake it. And then I found out, like, the faking was better than doing the melody. Yes!"
As Jim also points out in his notes about O'Day's Verve years and her flinty personality...
"Melody Maker reported an exchange between her and trumpeter Don Fagerquist. 'Stop! Stop!' she said angrily, pointing at him. 'What's the matter with you, man? You played exactly the same thing last time. Like play something different, man!'"
O'Day's scorn for Billy May was a style matter. As she wrote in her autobiography with George Eells...
"I sketched the tunes on tape and Billy embellished them for the arrangements. Good deal, except that his music was too loud for me, and the engineer put us all on one track, so remixing was impossible. I was always being buried. The needle would be bouncing around the dial making the engineer think my voice was on top of the music, because of my false peaks.
"Once when I complained the strings were too loud, Billy bristled: 'Get your own fucking orchestra.' Inside I flared, but outside I smiled: 'Too late, Billy. I've already had my own band.' Humor got us through."
Whatever O'Day's beefs with this album, many of her sonic nit-picks were resolved on the 2004 remastering. At the time of the recording, O'Day was addicted to heroin, which didn't seem to have much of an impact on her phrasing though years later could have made her more sensitive to results. As for her salty and impatient personality, O'Day's burning desire to take creative risks and produce spectacular results often left others in the dust, particularly those who were overloaded with studio work and may have been tapped out. On the other hand, Rodgers and Hart wasn't an easy date. Johnny One Note needed 12 takes, and the others averaged five each.
Nevertheless, every track on Rodgers and Hart is an stunning knockout. Has anyone ever put over Ten Cents a Dance more convincingly? What about the hand-on-hip delivery of Hart's fabulous lyrics to To Keep My Love Alive? And catch O'Day surfing the swinging sax writing on I Could Write a Book. Doesn't get much better than this, and each track comes with its own special qualities.
While the band does overshadow O'Day in places, the writing is so spirited you hardly notice. Russ Garcia produced, which makes me think he may have played a strong, uncredited role in the string charts and possibly the orchestrations. I'll ask him.
For now, listen hard to this gem. The band is powerful, turning this date into a batting-cage job for O'Day, who swings for the fences on each song—but always with charm and finesse.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Anita O'Day and Billy May Swing Rodgers and Hart at iTunes or here. Dig these samples. These tracks are so delightfully upbeat and addictive.
JazzWax clip: Unfortunately, I couldn't find a single track from Rodgers & Hart on YouTube. But here's Let's Fall in Love from three years later in Sweden. Dig the neck muscles under O'Day's chin toward the end of the clip, giving you a fine sense of where her enormous power and control come from...