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. 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.
The next few years found Odetta releasing some new full-length albums, including Livin' with the Blues and a collection of Leadbelly
tunes, Looking for a Home. She toured North America, Latvia, and Scotland and was mentioned in Martin Scorsese's 2005 documentary, No Direction Home. That same year Odetta released Gonna Let It Shine, which went on to receive a 2007 Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Folk Album. In December 2008, she died of heart disease in New York. ~ Philip Van Vleck, Rovi