Odetta Holmes Felious Gordon was a remarkable voice in American folk music since her solo debut in San Francisco in 1949. She was born in Birmingham, AL, in 1930, and lost her father at a young age. Her mother remarried and gave the children their stepfather's name, Felious.
At age six, Odetta's family moved to Los Angeles where she began to study music seriously at age 13. While studying opera at Los Angeles City College, friends introduced her to folk music.
After starting her career in San Francisco clubs she moved to New York in 1953. Harry Belafonte was one of the first to discover and promote her. He included her in a major TV special that boosted her career.
Odetta's style is said to have inspired Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the start of their careers. Belafonte credits her with teaching him about the use of dramatic interpretation in song. In 2005 Martin Scorcese direced a documentary film No Direction Home, hoghlighting her impact on the young Bob Dylan.
Her first solo album, “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues,” resonated with an audience hearing old songs made new.
Bob Dylan, referred to her record “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues,” in a 1978 interview with Playboy, “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta.” He said he heard something “vital and personal.”
Probably better known to a wider audience for having marched with Martin Luther King and lent her prodigious voice to the American civil rights and social justice movement - and was subsequently named as Voice of Civil Rights Movement.
Odetta sang at the march on Washington, a pivotal event in the civil rights movement, in August 1963. Her song that day was “O Freedom,” dating to slavery days: “O freedom, O freedom, O freedom over me, And before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave, And go home to my Lord and be free.” The New York Times wrote. "Odetta's great, full-throated voice carried almost to Capitol Hill."
Rosa Parks, who started the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala., and decisive figure in the Civil Rights movement was once asked which songs meant the most to her. She replied, “All of the songs Odetta sings.”
Odetta died aged 77 of heart disease Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan yesterday.
Odetta had hoped to sing at the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, although her manager Doug yeager said she had not been officially invited... no doubt a fulsome tribute will be published by the President Elect in good time.