December 31, 1930 – December 2, 2008
Odetta Holmes was born during The Great Depression in Birmingham, Alabama the first of Flora Saunders and Reuben Holmes’ two daughters. Her father, a steel worker, died when Holmes was only six years old. When her mother married Zadock Felious, the children were given his last name.
Seeking better opportunities, plans were made for this new iteration of the family to relocate to Los Angeles. The move would have a tremendous impact on Felious in multiple ways. During the train ride, the conductor entered the train car and informed the Black riders that they would all have to move to another car. The experience deeply wounded Felious and remained in her memory.
A few years later, Felious’ piano teacher noticed that she had a good singing voice and suggested to her mother that she take voice lessons. With this prompting, she began studying classical music. At home, Felious and her sister listened to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio. But their stepfather preferred listening to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. Felious would also find her way to the blues and jazz. This early exposure to various styles of music shaped her emerging style and helped Felious find her voice.
After graduating from high school, Felious enrolled at Los Angeles City College. She supported herself by working at a department store and button factory by day while attending school at night. The exact timing is unclear but it seems that it was around this time that Felious dropped her last name and began going as just “Odetta”.
Initially, Odetta was seemingly on the path to becoming another Marian Anderson. She completed her degree and joined the chorus of a Finian’s Rainbow production at the Greek Theater. Odetta had begun studying with a new vocal coach, Paul Reese, after the death of her childhood teacher. He changed the course of her career by encouraging her to sing in a lower contralto voice and experiment with folk music.
Odetta had been exposed to what would become folk music as a small child living in the South. But years of studying classical music had caused her to regard folk music as being inferior. Yet, arriving in San Francisco in 1950 and visiting coffee shops, Odetta quickly became immersed in the emerging folk scene. It wasn’t long before she began singing in nightclubs and learned to play the guitar. She used her wide vocal range on a blend of musical styles.
Three years later Odetta relocated to New York City. There she came to the attention of Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger who helped to raise her profile and expand her fan base. Odetta recorded her debut album, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, in 1954 and it was released in 1956. She followed up with a sophomore album At the Gate of Horn in 1957. In 1959, Odetta was invited to appear on a major television special that was put together by Belafonte.
She appeared at the inaugural Newport Folk Festival in 1959 and made three more appearances by 1965. As the 1950s ended and the 60s began, Odetta’s popularity continued to increase and her blend of folk, blues, and spirituals became a part of the Civil Rights Movement’s soundtrack. 1960 saw her perform a solo show at Carnegie Hall that spawned a live album. Her career continued its upward trajectory culminating with her singing at the March on Washington. Odetta also performed for President Kennedy’s “Dinner with the President” televised special which aired across the nation.
Unfortunately, there were disadvantages to Odetta’s music becoming so intertwined with the Civil Rights Movement. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, it marked a turning point as the Movement in which he played a prominent role splintered. Odetta’s music matched the tone and feel of the early nonviolent Movement but declined in popularity as interest in the Movement decreased.
While she was no longer a prominent pop culture musician, Odetta continued to perform. She made appearances at premiere venues and performed at the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial opera. During her career, Odetta was nominated for three Grammy awards, received the National Endowment for the Arts Medal of the Arts and Humanities (1999), and was honored as a Library of Congress Living Legend (2003).
In her later years, Odetta suffered from heart disease and kidney failure and had to use a wheelchair but continued to perform. She was scheduled and looking forward to performing at President Obama’s January 2009 inauguration. Unfortunately, on December 2, 2008, Odetta died of heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. She had been married three times but had no children.
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