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Taking her impetus and spirit from the late, great jazz ’n’ blues singer BESSIE SMITH, ODETTA herself, was the inspiration to a fresh generation of 60s stars such as BOB DYLAN, JOAN BAEZ, MAVIS STAPLES and JANIS JOPLIN, her repertoire ranging from folk to gospel and the blues. Throughout her long and illustrious singing career, ODETTA turned her hand to everything from stage and theatre musicals to recently supporting on stage new-kid-on-the-block MADELEINE PEYROUX. Championed by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1961 as “the Queen of American folk music”, ODETTA’s outspoken participation in the civil rights movement was overwhelming, although she modestly put her involvement down as “one of the privates in a very big army” – no one could forget her resounding version of `O Freedom’ during the Washington march in August ‘63.
Born Odetta Holmes, December 31, 1930, Birmingham, Alabama, she was raised from the age of six by her mother in Los Angeles. Several years on and with a keen interest in music, ODETTA took up operatic-singing lessons, initially paid for by her poor mother (who had since re-married and taken the surname of Felious), maintained when times got hard by puppeteer Harry Burnette.
ODETTA’s first break came in the summer of 1949, when she was invited to perform in the L.A. (Greek Theater) production of Finian’s Rainbow; subsequent work included Guys And Dolls, the following summer, performances alongside PAUL ROBESON and er, as a live-in housekeeper to pay her upkeep. Finally breaking free from the shackles of other people’s domestic chores, ODETTA kick-started her journey to success via live-in-concert recordings with Larry Mohr, ODETTA & LARRY (aka THE TIN ANGEL) {*5} – subsequently released by Fantasy Records in the early 60s.
Championed by the likes of HARRY BELAFONTE and PETE SEEGER, her debut album proper, ODETTA sings BALLADS AND BLUES (1956) {*8}, was a near masterclass in vocal coloratura-soprano dexterity; as her vox matured it evolved into a more pronounced mezzo or baritone soprano. Full of traditional fare, you won’t hear folk or blues repertoire voiced (or performed) in such a devotional or spiritual nature elsewhere, choice cuts including `Santy Anno’, `’Buked And Scorned’, `Another Man Done Gone’, `Mule Skinner Blues’ and LEADBELLY’s `Easy Rider’.
Augmented by upright bassist Bill Lee (also her sole accompaniment in the early 60s), ODETTA delivered her sophomore set, AT THE GATE OF HORN (1957) {*6}, an effective, if not so poignant LP that suggested it was live – that was far from the truth. From `Take This Hammer’ and `Gallows Tree’ (later recorded by LED ZEPPELIN on `III’) to the not-so-serious `The Fox’ and the strum-friendly `Chilly Winds’ and `Timber’, this record has been underestimated by many purist-folk critics, acclaimed by blues fans.
With her fame stretching outside the confines of Greenwich Village, she signed with Vanguard Records, although she still found it difficult to break into the mainstream with subsequent albums MY EYES HAVE SEEN (1959) {*7}, sings the BALLAD FOR AMERICANS (1960) {*6}, AT CARNEGIE HALL (1960) {*7}, CHRISTMAS SPIRITUALS (1960) {*6} and ODETTA AT TOWN HALL (1962) {*7}.
Having married and changed her surname to Gordon in 1959, ODETTA also had a surprise UK Top 40 hit (`There’s A Hole In My Bucket’) in ’61 alongside the aforementioned BELAFONTE. Back home, she released one of her finest diversions for Riverside Records, ODETTA AND THE BLUES (1962) {*7}, a record augmented by swing-jazzateers Dick Wellstood (piano), Buck Clayton (trumpet), Herb Hall (clarinet), Vic Dickenson (trombone), Ahmed Abdul-Malik (bass) and Shep Shepherd (drums). Not exactly folk music, it still incorporated the trad-side, but the blues won the day via `Make Me A Pallet On The Floor’, `Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out’ and `Oh, My Babe’; SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE CRYIN’ (1962) {*7}, her first for R.C.A. Records, was released around the same time.
To compensate loyal and purist folk fans, the singer/guitarist issued her second LP for the major, ODETTA SINGS FOLK SONGS (1963) {*7}, her one and only entry in the US Top 100. Released a few years later but not containing one of the set’s better songs, `Blowing In The Wind’ (until the CD re-issue), the self-explanatory ODETTA SINGS DYLAN (1965) {*7} – with further in-session work from his guitarist Bruce Langhorne – pleased the purists once again, unlike Zimmerman fans several months ahead. Featuring rearrangements of usual DYLAN treads like `Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, `Masters Of War’ and a sedate 10-minute `Mr. Tambourine Man’, the set was unique in its collation of rare DYLAN readings like `Long Ago, Far Away’ and `Long Time Gone’, and the equally rare `Baby, I’m In The Mood For You’, `Tomorrow Is A Long Time’ and `Walkin’ Down The Line’.
The lady from Alabama was never quite as folky or inspirational as at this point; sporadic sets including ODETTA (1967) {*5} for Verve Forecast, ODETTA SINGS (1971) {*4} and “comeback” studio album MOVIN’ IT ON (1987) {*5} were commendable, if not massively appealing.
Never forgetting her blues and folk roots, and now nearing her 69th birthday, American institution ODETTA completed another revival by way of BLUES EVERYWHERE I GO (1999) {*7}, re-introducing inspirational works by lesser-known acts such as Sipie Wallace, Victoria Spivey, Thelma Lowe and Shirley Scott. TO ELLA (1998) {*6} – dedicated to Ella Fitzgerald as a homage to her idol, LOOKIN’ FOR A HOME (2001) {*5} – her full tribute to LEADBELLY – and the Grammy-nominated GONNA LET IT SHINE: A CONCERT FOR THE HOLIDAYS (2005) {*6}, were ODETTA’s last efforts; Martin Scorsese’s DYLAN-biased docu-film No Direction Home (2005) also unearthed some rare clips. Sadly, just as she was lined up for a prestigious spot at Barack Obama’s inauguration, she died of heart failure in New York City, December 2, 2008; it’d been a busy year for workaholic ODETTA, performing at benefits, picking up honorary awards and, from the confines of a wheelchair, a North American tour.
© MC Strong 2010/GFD // rev-up MCS Sep2015

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