FLORENCE — Odetta Holmes' former agent/manager said the celebrated folk singer would be thrilled to be inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
Douglas Yeager said Holmes, who was known during her career as simply “Odetta,” would be even more thrilled about the changes that have taken place in the state since her family moved when she was a child.
Odetta, who died Dec. 2, 2008, in New York City, is being inducted Saturday along with singer/songwriter/producer Mac McAnally, songwriter/guitarist Eddie Hinton, and singer/songwriter/producer Walt Aldridge.
“I think it would have special significance since she was born in Alabama and when she left Alabama, blacks were not accepted and not allowed into white society events, and now she's returning after 87 years to Alabama to an integrated hall of fame with whites and blacks together in harmony. I think that would maker her happy because she fought for so long,” Yeager said.
Yeager was Holmes' agent for 20 years and her personal manager during the last 12 years of her life.
Odetta was born Dec. 31, 1930, in Birmingham, but her family moved to Los Angeles, California, when she was 6 years old. It was on the train trip to California, Yeager said, where she suffered the first “of two big wounds in her life.”
“The conductor came back to where they were sitting and yelled at them like they were subhuman,” Yeager said, “He told them they could not be there and they had to get to the back of the train. It was the first time she understood prejudicial, government-sanctioned racism.”
About six years later in Los Angeles, a military vehicle pulled up to the home next door and took a Japanese family to an internment camp.
“That was her second great wound,” Yeager said.
It was in Los Angeles where Odetta studied to be an opera singer, but in the late 1940s blacks were not allowed to sing in the opera in the U.S., so she turned to the theater. Yeager said Odetta learned guitar and began taking her “four octave operatic voice” into the coffee shops and eventually began headlining in San Francisco.
She cut her first album in 1953 and became an influence on future folk artists like Bob Dylan, Janice Joplin, Richie Havens, Joan Baez and Mavis Staples.
“She had a long career, over six decades,” Yeager said.
He said Rosa Parks biographer Douglas Brinkley said the civil rights movement was likely supported and inspired by music more than any other protest movement in the United States.
Yeager said Odetta sang on the steps of the Washington Monument during the great civil rights march of 1963. She was also with marchers who crossed Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965. She performed at a celebration honoring Birmingham civil rights activist, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and she was honored at the White House by President Bill Clinton.
“Douglas Brinkley asked Rosa Parks what inspired her during the civil rights movement,” Yeager said.
“Anything Odetta sings,” was Parks' answer, he said.
Yeager said Martin Luther King Jr. labeled Odetta “the queen of American folk music.”
Until about the last 10 years of her career, Odetta would often perform old slave songs during her shows. Yeager said she could only perform those songs when she felt the anger they brought out in her.
“When she didn't have that anger, she felt she couldn't do those songs justice,” Yeager said.
Yeager said Odetta was part of the folk music revival that took place in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Since the late 1940s, Yeager said the singer was known only as “Odetta,” long before other female entertainers such as “Cher” or “Madonna” began performing under a single name.
In 1970, she recorded “Odetta Sings” at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield. The backing band included David Hood on bass, Jimmy Johnson on rhythm guitar, Barry Beckett on keys, Roger Hawkins on drums, and fellow hall of fame inductee Eddie Hinton on lead guitar.
The album featured two tracks written by Odetta, “Hit or Miss” and “Movin' It On,” and popular covers of “No Expectations” by the Rolling Stones, “Take Me to the Pilot” by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and “Mama Told Me (Not To Come)” by Randy Newman.
“She would come back to Alabama in later years to give concerts,” Yeager said. “The last was an outdoor concert in Birmingham.”
Odetta's daughter, Michelle Esrick, said she is grateful to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame for honoring her mother and all she stood for.
"We need her voice now more than ever," Esrick said.
Esrick said she remembers her mother's love and honesty, and how she carried herself with great dignity and purpose, which came from a pure and authentic place.
"I loved her smile," she said. "When she smiled all was right with the world. "She felt very strongly about music being a healing power for us as individuals and for us as a country. She said music healed her from her own personal wounds of injustice. So, this belief came from firsthand experience."
Esrick said she believes her mother would be "so deeply moved and so very proud" to be inducted into the hall of fame.
Yeager said Odetta will be inducted by blues artist and lifelong friend Guy Davis, the son of the late actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.
“He was close friends with her,” Yeager said. “'This Little Light of Mine” was her signature song. He's going to sing that at the banquet.”
Artists influenced by Odetta including Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, Joan Baez, Bonny Raitt and Harry Belafonte have been asked to send cellphone video clips about how she impacted their lives.
According to Yeager, Odetta's obituary was featured on the front page of The New York Times. The headline read: “Odetta: voice of civil rights movement, dies at 77.”
Her memorial services were held at the 2,500-seat Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan. There were 80 speakers and performers.
"Odetta was considered the prime musical voice of the civil rights movement," Alabama Tourism Director Lee Sentell said. "Her messages through songs are as relevant now as they were decades ago."