(1930 - 2008)
Great African-American Folksinger
Odetta (December 31 1930 - December 2 2008) was an African-American singer, actress, guitarist, songwriter, and a human rights activist, often referred to as "The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement." Her musical repertoire consists largely of American folk music, blues, jazz, and spirituals. An important figure in the American folk music revival of the 1950s and '60s, she was a formative influence on dozens of artists, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Janis Joplin.
Early life and career
She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, grew up in Los Angeles, California, and studied music at Los Angeles City College. Having operatic training from the age of 13, her first professional experience was in musical theater in 1944, as an ensemble member for four years with the Hollywood Turnabout Puppet Theatre, working alongside Elsa Lanchester; she later joined the national touring company of the musical Finian's Rainbow in 1949.
While on tour with Finian's Rainbow, Odetta "fell in with an enthusiastic group of young balladeers in San Francisco", and after 1950 concentrated on folksinging.
She made her name by playing around the United States: at the Blue Angel nightclub (New York City), the hungry i (San Francisco), and Tin Angel (San Francisco), where she and Larry Mohr recorded Odetta and Larry in 1954, for Fantasy Records.
A solo career followed, with Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues (1956) and At the Gate of Horn (1957). Odetta Sings Folk Songs was one of 1963's best-selling folk albums.
In 1961, Martin Luther King, Jr. anointed her "The Queen of American folk music".
Broadening her musical scope, Odetta used band arrangements on several albums rather than playing alone, and released music of a more "jazz" style music on albums like Odetta and The Blues (1962) and Odetta (1967).
Odetta also acted in several films during this period, including Cinerama Holiday (1955), the film of William Faulkner's Sanctuary (1961) and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974).
She toured extensively on the folk music circuit from the 1960s to the 1980s, performing with Pete Seeger, Tom Winslow, and many other artists.
Odetta only released two new albums in the 20-year period from 1977-1997: Movin' It On and Christmas Spirituals, both in 1987.
In 1976, Odetta performed in the Bicentennial opera "Be Glad Then America" by John LaMontayne, as the Muse for America; with the Penn State University Choir and the Pittsburgh Symphony.
Beginning in 1998, she re-focused her energies on recording and touring and her career took on a major resurgence. The new CD To Ella (recorded live and dedicated to her old friend Ella Fitzgerald upon hearing of her passing before walking on stage), was released in 1998 on Silverwolf Records, followed by three new releases on M.C. Records, which cemented a partnership with pianist/arranger/producer Seth Farber and record producer Mark Carpentieri, including: Blues Everywhere I Go, a 2000 Grammy Nominated blues/jazz band tribute album to the great lady blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s; Looking for a Home, a 2002 W.C. Handy Award nominated band tribute to Lead Belly; and the 2007 Grammy Nominated Gonna Let It Shine, a live album of gospel and spiritual songs supported by Seth Farber and The Holmes Brothers. These new recordings and an active world touring schedule created the demand for her guest star appearance on fourteen new albums of other artists (between 1999 and 2006), and the re-release of forty-five old Odetta albums and compilation appearances.
On September 29, 1999, President Bill Clinton presented Odetta with the National Endowment for the Arts' National Medal of Arts. In 2004, Odetta was honored at the Kennedy Center in Washington with the "Visionary Award" along with a tribute performance by Tracy Chapman. In 2005, the Library of Congress in Washington honored her with its "Living Legend Award".
The 2005 documentary film No Direction Home, directed by Martin Scorsese, highlights her musical influence on Bob Dylan, the subject of the documentary. The film contains an archive clip of Odetta performing "Waterboy" on TV in 1959, and we also hear Odetta's songs "Muleskinner Blues" and "No More Auction Block for Me".
In 2006, Odetta opened shows for jazz vocalist Madeleine Peyroux, and in 2006 she toured the US, Canada, and Europe accompanied by her pianist, which included being presented by the US Embassy in Latvia as the keynote speaker at a Human Rights conference, and also in a concert in the capital city of Riga's historic 1,000 year old Maza Guild Hall. In December, 2006, the Winnipeg Folk Festival honored Odetta with their "Lifetime Achievement Award." In February, 2007, The International Folk Alliance awarded Odetta as "Traditional Folk Artist of the Year." On March 24, 2007 a tribute concert to Odetta was presented in Washington, D.C. at the Rachel Schlessinger Theatre by the World Folk Music Association with live performance and video tributes by Pete Seeger, Madeleine Peyroux, Harry Belafonte, Janis Ian, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Josh White, Jr., Peter, Paul & Mary, Oscar Brand, Tom Rush, Jesse Winchester, Eric Andersen, Wavy Gravy, David Amram, Roger McGuinn, Robert Sims, Carolyn Hester, Donal Leace, Marie Knight, Side By Side, and Laura McGhee (from Scotland).
In 2007, her album Gonna' Let It Shine was nominated for a Grammy, and she completed a major Fall Concert Tour in the "Songs of Spirit" show, which included artists from all over the world. She toured around North America in late 2006 and early 2007 to support this CD.
On January 21, 2008, Odetta was the Keynote Speaker at San Diego's Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration, followed by concert performances in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, and Mill Valley, in addition to being the sole guest for the evening on PBS-TV's "Tavis Smiley Show."
In 2008, at the age of 77, she launched another national tour, with concerts in Albany, New York and other cities, singing strongly and confidently from a wheelchair. Her set in recent years includes "This Little Light of Mine (I'm Gonna Let It Shine)," Lead Belly's "The Bourgeois Blues," (Something Inside) So Strong," "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and "House of the Rising Sun."
In November 2008, Odetta's health began to decline and she began receiving treatment at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. She was slated to perform at Barack Obama's inauguration on January 20, 2009.
On December 02, 2008, Odetta died from heart disease in New York City.