Queen of folk led way for female solo singers
Odetta Holmes Felious:BEFORE BLACK was beautiful, before folk music became widely popular - before even the civil rights struggle stood for something every American understood - there was Odetta.
She helped popularise folk in the US while blazing a trail for independent female singers, both black and white, her influence being felt in the music of Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Tracy Chapman, among many others.
Her gap-toothed smile and commanding yet warm stage presence marked her out as an outstanding live entertainer, and one of the first black women to attract a large white audience. Odetta, who has died of kidney failure aged 77, received many honours during her life, most notably from Martin Luther King, who called her "the queen of American folk music", and the then US president Bill Clinton, who in 1999 awarded her the National Medal of the Arts and Humanities. She had been due to sing at Barack Obama's inauguration in January.
Odetta was born in Birmingham, Alabama, to Reuben Holmes, a steel-mill worker, and his wife, Flora, a maid. Her father died when Odetta was a toddler. Her mother then got remarried, to Zadock Felious, and the family moved to Los Angeles. Although she took her stepfather's surname, as a performer Odetta always used only her first name. Her parents played her jazz and classical music, her mother enrolling her for opera lessons when she was 13. On leaving high school, she went to work as a maid, while studying classical music and musical comedy at night school. She first sang professionally in Los Angeles in 1944, began to get work in musical theatre, and in 1949 sang in the touring production of Finian's Rainbow. In 1950 she was cast in a production of Guys and Dolls.
While performing in San Francisco with the show, Odetta became aware of the nascent folk music movement, and, having bought a guitar, tentatively began to perform. Woody Guthrie's protege Ramblin' Jack Elliott helped her get a booking in a folk club, and she soon won a residency and a loyal audience.
Returning to Los Angeles, she again worked as a maid while pursuing work as a singer. Around this time she developed a mix of folk, spirituals and blues that would change little across the following decades. "In school, you learn about American history through battles," she told the New York Times in 1981. "But I learned about the United States through this music, through the songs that I sing." In 1953 she performed at the Blue Angel folk club in New York. There she met Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, who both began to champion her work.
The following year the San Francisco jazz label Fantasy Records released Odetta & Larry, an album shared with the folk singer Larry Mohr. Odetta's debut solo album, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, was released in 1956 by Tradition Records. Her 1957 album At the Horn was later cited by Bob Dylan as the recording that spurred him to play folk music.
In 1959 Belafonte included Odetta on his television special, helping her to win a wide audience. She signed with New York's Vanguard Records and released albums regularly - three in 1960 alone. In 1961 she sang with Belafonte on My Bucket's Got a Hole in It, a minor hit in the UK. She acted in the films Sanctuary (1961) and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974).
Odetta's afro hairstyle and pride in her African features made her a role model for many black Americans. She identified with the civil rights movement and sang at the March on Washington on August 28th, 1963; performed for president John F Kennedy at a civil rights presentation and marched with King from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
Her studio recordings often had a stilted atmosphere, but in concert she came into her own. Her live albums, Odetta at Carnegie Hall (1960) and Odetta at Town Hall (1962), captured her varied repertoire and soulful persona.
Yet, as popular music changed during the 1960s, she came to be seen as old-fashioned. Her reliance on traditional material meant she was overtaken by a wave of folk-inspired singer-songwriters, while her mezzo-soprano vocal appeared formal compared with the gospel/blues-derived voices then favoured in black music.
Although Odetta continued to perform, recording occasionally, her achievements were largely forgotten. In 1988 she signed up with a new manager, Doug Yeager, who immediately raised her profile, and she began recording and touring again, often playing the UK. Martin Scorsese's Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home (2005) included a clip of her appearance on Tonight With Belafonte in 1959. Her 2007 album Gonna Let It Shine was nominated for the best traditional folk album Grammy. Earlier this year, she launched a US tour, performing in a wheelchair and campaigning for Obama from the stage.
She was married and divorced three times, to Don Gordon, Gary Shead and the blues musician Iverson Minter (Louisiana Red). Her adopted daughter Michelle Esrick survives her.
Odetta Holmes Felious: born December 31st, 1930; died December 2nd, 2008