Folk singer and civil rights beacon Odetta, whose power-packed voice influenced fellow musicians for a half-century, died Tuesday of heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital. She was 77.
Odetta was admitted to the hospital with kidney failure about three weeks ago, said her manager of 12 years, Doug Yeager.
The Associated Press reports: “With her booming, classically trained voice and spare guitar, Odetta gave life to the songs by workingmen and slaves, farmers and miners, housewives and washerwomen, blacks and whites.
“First coming to prominence in the 1950s, she influenced Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and other singers who had roots in the folk music boom.”
Odetta called on her fellow blacks to “take pride in the history of the American Negro” and was active in the civil rights movement. She sang at the March on Washington in August 1963 and had hoped to sing at the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, though she had not been officially invited, Yeager said.
She was nominated for a 1963 Grammy award for best folk recording for “Odetta Sings Folk Songs.” Two more Grammy nominations came in recent years, for her 1999 “Blues Everywhere I Go” and her 2005 album “Gonna Let It Shine.”
In a 1978 Playboy interview, Dylan said, “the first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta.” He said he found “just something vital and personal” when he heard an early album of hers in a record store as a teenager. “Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustic guitar,” he said.
Belafonte also cited her as a key influence on his hugely successful recording career, and she was a guest singer on his 1960 album, “Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall.”
Born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Ala., in 1930, she moved with her family to Los Angeles at age 6. Her father had died when she was young and she took her stepfather’s last name, Felious. Hearing her in glee club, a junior high teacher made sure she got music lessons, but Odetta became interested in folk music in her late teens and turned away from classical studies.
She got much of her early experience at the Turnabout Theatre in Los Angeles, where she sang and played occasional stage roles in the early 1950s.
Over the years, she picked up occasional acting roles in TV and film. None other than famed Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper reported in 1961 that she “comes through beautifully” in the film “Sanctuary.”
Odetta is survived by a daughter, Michelle Esrick of New York City, and a son, Boots Jaffre, of Fort Collins, Colo. She was divorced about 40 years ago and never remarried, her manager said. A memorial service was planned for next month, Yeager said.
Odetta “Water Boy”