The Odessa files

Odessa Harris has a voice that sounds like whispers through silk, yet you can still hear and feel every expression, word and phrase. It’s absolutely beautiful.

Be forewarned, though — her voice is one that requires attention, and a real appreciation for mastery of craft.

But regardless of her remarkable vocal abilities, the 67-year-old Harris may well have vanished into the haze of yesteryear had it not been for the constant prompting of two people. One is jazz trumpet great Marcus Belgrave, who coaxed her out of retirement. The other is Detroit’s master career resuscitator of forgotten local jazz and blues greats, R.J. Spangler. Spangler, who now acts as Harris’ manager, is also the drummer in the singer’s band.

Several years ago, Belgrave dragged Harris out to the Music Menu one night. There she met Spangler, who “happened” to be performing.

The meeting was hardly chance.

“She sat in with us and sang a few songs,” explains Spangler, “then afterward Marcus took me aside and said, ‘You know, she’s a good singer. You ought to try to find her some work.’” Harris has been working with Spangler for about three years.

Harris’ remarkable career spans nearly five decades; she has associated with some of the most respected names in both jazz and blues.

Like so many vocalists of her generation, Harris began singing in the choir at a local Baptist church near her hometown of West Helena, Ark. Eventually she stepped out on her own to sing in gambling houses and other places. At the tender age of 14, she landed a spot on the famed “King Biscuit Time” radio show.

Harris spent the next few years singing with a touring carnival show. In 1959, she landed in Jacksonville, Fla., to try her luck in the nightclub scene. There, Harris quickly established a name for herself.

Then B.B. King came to town and things got greener. Harris joined King onstage for an impromptu performance, and King was blown away. She was on King’s tour bus the next morning, and performed with him as a featured vocalist for the next two years.

Nearly a decade later she relocated to Detroit. Using the Motor City as her home base, Harris worked freelance throughout the Midwest for several years before teaming up with drummer Sonny Freeman and the Unusuals to become a staple on the R&B circuit, until Freeman passed away in the late ’80s. By then, Harris figured she had had enough of “the life” and eased off into retirement, becoming a practicing Buddhist.

Now, all these years later, Odessa Harris is back, full of spunk and ready to bring the house down. What’s more, The Easy Life, her first recording in 30 years, has just been released on the local Eastlawn label. So, at the end of the day, Harris is something to be thankful for. Don’t miss her.


The Odessa Harris CD release party is scheduled for Saturday, March 8, at the Music Menu (511 Monroe, Detroit). Harris will be performing. For information, call 313-964-MENU.

E-mail Keith A. Owens at [email protected]
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