Odetta was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1930 but grew up in Los Angeles. She started operatic training when she was 13 and later studied music at Los Angeles City College. In 1944 she became an ensemble singer with the Hollywood Turnabout Puppet Theatre then left five years later to join the national touring company playing in the musical Finian's Rainbow. On tour Odetta became interested in folk music and started singing in clubs. She soon gained a loyal following and signed to Fantasy Records. There she recorded ‘Odetta and Larry’ as a duet with Larry B Mohr in 1954. It was a live recording taken from a gig at San Francisco's Tin Angel nightclub.
Keen to pursue a solo career she released several albums including acoustic American folk music and spirituals, blues but later turned to jazz.
She appeared in several films, including Cinerama Holiday (1955), and Sanctuary (1961).
She also featured in a TV special with Harry Belafonte called Tonight With Belafonte. She sang ‘Water Boy’ and a duet with her host, ‘There's a Hole in My Bucket’ was later released as a single and reached the top 50 UK singles charts in 1961.
Her style was unique and subsequently had a profound influence on other emerging talent including, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Carly Simon and Joan Baez. Throughout the sixties Odetta was an active member of the Civil Rights movement. On the march to Washington in 1963 she sang "O Freedom," and Dr Martin Luther King dubbed her "the Queen of American folk music."
In the 70s she appeared in the movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) and two years later she performed in the U.S. Bicentennial opera "Be Glad Then America" by John LaMontaigne, as the Muse for America.
Odetta released only two albums in the 20-year period from 1977-1997: Movin' It On, in 1987 and a new version of Christmas Spirituals, produced by Rachel Faro, in 1988.
Towards the end of the nineties she started to record and tour again and remained busy appearing on the albums of other artists. Odetta continued to be in demand and toured aged 77 she sang from a wheelchair. Her last big concert was in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park on October 4, 2008.
Two months later she died from heart disease in New York City.
Worth a listen
Alabama Bound (1956)
He’s got the whole world in his hand (1956)
Midnight Special (1957)
Bald headed woman (1959)
Motherless child (1959)
Battle hymn of the Republic (1959)
Bald headed woman (1959)
Go tell it on the mountain (1960)
Go down sunshine (1962)
Nobody knows when your down out (1962)
Odetta and Larry
Old cotton fields back home (1954)
Water Boy (1954)
Rock Island Line (1954)
Odetta and Harry Belafonte
There’s a hole in my bucket (1961)