(1930 - 3 Dec 2008)
|Odetta was born on New Year's Eve, 1930, in Birmingham, Alabama.
By the time she was six years old, she'd moved with her younger
sister and mother to Los Angeles. She showed a keen interest in
music from the time she was a child, and when she was about 10 years
old, somewhere between church and school, her singing voice was
discovered. Odetta's mother began saving money to pay for voice
lessons for her, but was advised to wait until her daughter was 13
years old and well into puberty.
Thanks to her mother, Odetta did begin voice lessons when she was
13. She received a classical training, which was interrupted when
her mother could no longer afford to pay for the lessons. The
puppeteer Harry Burnette interceded and paid for Odetta to continue
her voice training.
|When she was 19 years old, Odetta landed a role in
the Los Angeles production of Finian's Rainbow, which was staged in
the summer of 1949 at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. It was
during the run of this show that she first heard the blues harmonica
master Sonny Terry. The following summer, Odetta was again
performing in summer stock in California. This time it was a
production of Guys and Dolls, staged in San Francisco. Hanging out
in North Beach during her days off, Odetta had her first experience
with the growing local folk music scene. Following her summer in San
Francisco, Odetta returned to Los Angeles, where she worked as a
live-in housekeeper. During this time she performed on a show bill
with Paul Robeson.
In 1953, Odetta took some time off from her housecleaning chores to
travel to New York City and appear at the famed Blue Angel folk
club. Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte had both taken an interest in
her career by this time, and her debut album, The Tin Angel, was
released in 1954. From this time forward, Odetta worked to expand
her repertoire and make full use of what she has always termed her
"instrument." When she began singing, she was considered a
coloratura soprano. As she matured, she became more of a
mezzo-soprano. Her experience singing folk music led her to discover
a vocal range that runs from coloratura to baritone.
Odetta's most productive decade as a recording artist came in the
1960s, when she released 16 albums, including Odetta at Carnegie
Hall, Christmas Spirituals, Odetta and the Blues, It's a Mighty
World and Odetta Sings Dylan. In 1999 she released her first studio
album in 14 years, Blues Everywhere I Go. Vanguard Records has
released two excellent Odetta compilations: The Essential Odetta
(1989) and Odetta: Best of the Vanguard Years (1999).
On September 29, 1999, President Bill Clinton presented Odetta with
the National Endowment for the Arts' Medal of the Arts, a fitting
tribute to one of the great treasures of American music. ~ Philip
Van Vleck, All Music Guide