Born in depression-era America and described by Martin Luther King as “The queen of the American folk song” [*1], Odetta was a singer and musician whose incredible voice and commanding stage presence made her a huge star. She influenced a generation of musicians, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin, and her music become synonymous with the 1960s black civil rights movement.
Odetta was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on New Year’s Eve in 1930. Her father died when she was still in infancy and, when her mother re-married a few years later, the family moved to Los Angeles. She took her stepfather’s name and became Odetta Holmes Felious, however, her professional name was always simply Odetta. She learned to play her grandmother’s piano as a child and began opera classes at the age of thirteen. Working as a maid to pay her way through Los Angeles City College, she later earned a degree in Classical Music.
She began her stage career with roles in musical theatre but, while performing in San Francisco in 1950, found she was greatly drawn to the emergent folk music scene there. She learned to play the guitar and began singing traditional songs in her own individual style. She was offered a residency at The Tin Angel club where her sumptuous voice and emotive performances made her an instant hit.
In 1953 Odetta moved to New York to perform at the city’s Blue Angel Club. Her rich, expressive vocals and broad range of spirituals, blues, jazz and folk impressed the city’s music community and brought her to the attention of folk luminaries such as Peter Seeger and Harry Belafonte, the latter becoming a good friend who helped to cultivate her burgeoning reputation. In 1954 her first recording, Odetta and Larry, an album of duets with Larry Mohr, was released. A year later Odetta appeared in the film, Cinerama Holiday, the first of several movie performances, after which she was again based in Los Angeles for a season at the Turnabout Theatre.
Whilst performing in Chicago, Odetta was spotted by music impresario, Al Grossman. He became her manager and signed her to the Tradition record label. Her first solo album, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues was released in 1956 and is credited by Bob Dylan as the inspiration which brought him to folk music.
In 1959 Odetta appeared on Harry Belafonte’s television special, bringing her to the attention of a much wider audience. After signing with Vanguard Records in New York, she made three albums in 1960 and continued to record on a regular basis. However, she was at her best when performing live in concert. Her barn-storming appearance at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival was the stuff of legend. Her live albums, Odetta at Carnegie Hall and Odetta at Town Hall, released in 1960 and 1962 respectively, captured not only the range of her repertoire, but the gravitas of her performance. Her formidable stage presence, her unique musical interpretations and her soulful mezzo-soprano voice filled every song she sang with power and emotion.
Odetta’s music connected cultures and genres, melding black American blues and gospel with contemporary folk. Thanks to her, a much wider audience heard and understood black spirituals and work songs, the ballads sung by black prisoners and slaves to express their sorrow and anguish. Through her music she was able to portray the racism and suffering experienced by black people in America.
Odetta was a significant role model for many black Americans. She was glamorous, charismatic, confident, had a highly individual style and was tremendously proud of her African heritage (once claiming to have invented the Afro hairstyle! [*2]). She used her music and her platform to advance the fight for social justice and she became an important figure of the American black civil rights movement. In August 1963 she performed at the 250,000 strong March on Washington, the rally at which Martin Luther King Jnr made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. She sang for John F Kennedy at a civil rights presentation and in 1965 marched with Reverend King from Selma to Alabama.
Although she was at the height of her fame during the 1960s, Odetta continued to perform and record well into the 21st Century, sometimes appearing onstage alongside the very musicians on whom she had been a huge influence. In April 2007 she performed 57 Channels at a Carnegie Hall tribute concert for Bruce Springsteen, causing the star to come out from the wings and declare it the greatest version of the song he had ever heard. Later that year, Odetta’s album, Gonna Let It Shine, was nominated for a Grammy award.
Early in 2008 Odetta undertook a US tour, despite a serious heart condition and failing health which meant that she now performed from a wheelchair. Having been a vocal supporter during his candidacy, Odetta had been due to sing at Obama’s presidential inauguration. Sadly, she died in December 2008, only weeks before the event.