Odetta Felious was an African-American folk music singer who’s sound resonated throughout the civil rights struggle. Odetta, who simply went by her first name, recorded her first single called “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues” in 1956 followed by “At the Gate of Horn” a year later.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama and raised in Los Angeles, Felious received operatic training as a young girl. Unfortunately she believed that a plus size black woman would never be accepted at the Metropolitan Opera to perform. She started performing in musicals, and in 1949, Felious starred in Finian’s Rainbow. She later hit the nightclub circuit, performing all over the United States.
The music of Felious was heard all over the nation. In 1959 she appeared on Tonight With Belafonte a nationally televised special, signing a duet with Belafonte. Then again during the March on Washington, as she marched with Dr. King singing “Oh Freedom.” At the top of the folk music charts, Felious’ melodious sound took her to the White House where she performed for President John F. Kennedy on the televised civil rights special called “Dinner with the President.”
Felious had an impressive client base. Time Magazine included her song “Take This Hammer” on its list of the All-Time 100 Songs. Some of her biggest fans were civil rights activist Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Harry Belafonte referred to her as the “key influence” to his career. Other admirers were Carly Simon, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and John Baez.
She broadened her reach by performing in Cinerama Holiday (1955), William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1961) and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) and a list of other film productions.
Felious launched national tours before her final tour, in which she performed in a wheelchair in 2008. Unfortunately, she passed away from heart disease on December 2, 2008.