Cover photo © Jim Hartzell
After a two year hiatus, the Utah Blues Festival was back in business last month, welcoming an excited bunch of blues fans from around the country to the festival site in downtown Salt Lake City.
Chances are that many of the blues lovers who made a point to be there for the opening set of the festival had never heard Terrie Odabi sing. There is little doubt that once they did, the collective assembly became lifetime fans of the powerful, expressive vocalist. Starting with a solemn, meditative rendition of the spiritual “Wade In The Water,” Odabi and her crack band laid out the blues in it’s many shapes and colors, anchored by the singer’s commanding presence.
Every since she was a child, Odabi has been singing, in keeping with her family, which made music a big part of life.
“My parents played a lot of music around our house, and there was plenty of music-making at the family gatherings. Everybody in the family, with the possible exception of my Dad, had a really good voice. However, I was the only one that was an extrovert when it came to music. I participated in plenty of talent shows and musical productions at school. While there have been different chapters, I have been singing my entire life.”
While her parents were not church-goers, many of the kids Odabi sang with in school programs were brought up in the church. Some of them were extraordinary musicians who naturally took leadership roles at school in unofficial ways.
“By the time I got to high school, they could play all the instruments, play by ear, and sing like nobody’s business. I got immersed in gospel music by singing with them at many church revivals, not from anything at home.”
Whether it is musical theater, world music, or jazz vocalization, Odabi has been unafraid to try new sounds. Years of voice lessons have allowed her to develop the skills necessary to effectively handle such a wide musical palette.
“I also have done R&B and Neo-soul. Every so often, different musical opportunities would present themselves. My voice instructor, John Patton, was classically trained. He really believed that learning to sing arias in Italian, German, or French would teach you a lot about voice placement. You would be able to execute any type of music without damaging your voice. So I learned the proper way to sing. When I was younger, I was a first soprano, and I got a lot of joy from singing arias. Over the years, I have lost some of my range.
“After I learned the arias, my instructor would present jazz music to me, songs I had never heard before. He would have me translate what I learned from the arias to the jazz songs. One key thing he taught me was the importance of articulation. To me, there is nothing more frustrating than listening to an amazing vocalist, but you can’t understand anything that they are singing. I hope that no one ever has that complaint when they hear my music.
“John also had me sing spirituals . They are the classic music, the foundation that blues came from. The music started in the fields, then slowly worked it’s way to the educational institutions, where it was charted and harmonies put to them. I found that evolution to be very interesting. Spirituals have been a part of my life through college and on, so I don’t remember not knowing spirituals like “Wade In The Water”. I like to sing them to pay homage to the roots of the music I love.”
Odabi found that jazz prompted a more stylized vocal approach, requiring a great deal of focus. Switching to the blues realm has been invigorating.
“With blues, for me, it is more organic. I am able to express my feelings more freely. That’s the main reason why I feel I have my place. I grew up with the music because that was what my parents played at home. Then, I didn’t feel it was for me, that I was too young to perform blues. I would sing a few songs during a show for the older members of the audience, that was their music. It was natural for me to sing blues at that time, but I took it for granted.
“But once I started digging into it, I quickly felt the freedom of expression, and how it fit my voice. As I have gotten older, I appreciate being less inhibited while singing. It took a long time to get to this point, but I am really glad that I made it. Blues is the freest music I have ever done!
“To be honest, I was looking for something different to do in my career. For R&B and Neo-soul, no one was probably going to lend an ear to me because I was older. With those genres, you have a certain window of time where you can flourish. Once you reach a certain age, you are kind of capped out. With blues, I may not be young but I am certainly not one of the elders. Blues seems like a perfect place for me.”
Asked about the vocalists that have inspired her, Odabi quickly points out that, like her career, her list has gone through a number of phases. Early on, when she was fixated on R&B, Odabi was drawn to artists like Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole, Betty Wright, Ann Peebles, and Dorothy Moore. Once her focus shifted to jazz, she gained a high level of appreciation for the tone and advanced ear of Ella Fitzgerald, as well as the way Billie Holiday would center on the emotional core of a tune.
“Before I started really exploring blues, I fell in love with Big Mama Thornton and Etta James. I heard Bobby Blue Bland and B.B. King growing up. My Dad loved Etta, but I didn’t pay her much mind until I got older, when I finally could understand the ups and downs of her career, and what she brought to the music in this country.
“These days there are some younger singers who inspire me, who may not be the most famous, but they are headed that way. Annika Chambers is one of them. Not only do I like her voice, but also how she will jump in feet first and take charge of her career. She doesn’t wait for someone to give her opportunities. She is paving the way for herself, which I love about her. Another inspiration is Thornetta Davis and her voice, which never fails to move me. As you can tell I am very partial to women!”
Women, and particularly black women, have always been a minority in blues music, except for the very early days of recording, when records by female blues singers sold by the thousands Odabi has continually shared her thoughts with her contemporaries about the challenges in getting the same opportunities as other blues artists. When the pandemic lock-down occurred, those conversations became a real lifeline.
“I would like to see more than just tributes to women in blues. I would like to see more diversity on blues stages, which would mean more black women sprinkled into the mix. I have been told things like, “I would love to book you for my festival, but I already booked Annika Chambers”. That means, in their mind, that they only have space for one black woman in their line-up. Or maybe just a slot for one female performer. Festival line-ups are very visible, so look some of them up, and quite often you will find an absence of black women. That has always struck me as odd, not understanding why that is, and it is certainly not for a lack of talent.
“During the shutdown, many of us started checking in with each other, just to see how we were doing. We found so much comfort and unity in those conversations that we started meeting every Tuesday, having discussions about racial and gender equality in blues music. Those issues really bubbled up in our spirits after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.
“That was a powerful time for powerful conversations. It was a really positive moment for so many of us to have these painful conversations that we haven’t had since the 1960s decade. We thought everything was fine, Jim Crow was over. It is really sad that it took the death of these young men to start these discussions without being so guarded.”
One outcome of the conversations was a petition advocating for equality in the blues community, particularly for African-American artists, and Black women specifically. To date, over 1,000 people have signed om in a show of support.
“There have been as many of 30 women at times, with a core group of about ten of us. We still meet once a month. We have become real sisters. When my daughter passed away in March, they were there for me. Several of them flew into the Bay area to attend the services for her. With that being said, I have developed some strong relationships with women who share the same views, and are struggling in some of the same ways.
“Through numerous dialogues, I also got to know a number of people, who are white, on a deeper level as well. We had some tense conversations that I think we wouldn’t have been able to have at any other time. I might have been afraid to say certain things. And they might have been afraid too, and not been open to hearing certain things. In my perspective, at least some good came out of the Covid period.”
In 2014, Odabi self-released her first album of blues, entitled Evolution Of The Blues, which had six songs including a cover of “The Sky Is Crying”.
“The CD came after I wrote the title track . It was the first blues song I had written. The message is that we still have the blues, it is very much a part of who we are, speaking specifically about the black community I live in. We still have sorrows and strife, which change just as people do. It was written to speak about current events. It also documents my personal evolution to the music.
“I wrote five songs for that project. One of them, “Daddy-O,” was written about my father, who passed away in 2011. He was a big part of my love for music. I wanted to write a song that was uplifting, that would make me smile when I thought of him.”
In 2016, the singer released her second blues recording, My Blue Soul. Featuring her dynamic vocals and dramatic songwriting, it received a 2017 Blues Music Award nomination in the Best Emerging Artist Album category, in addition to garnering Odabi’s first of now four nominations for Soul Blues Female Artist.
“At the oddest moments, songs just pop into my head. There was a period of time where I had so many songs coming to mind, sometimes as a complete tune. I had more than enough for an album. We recorded at Greaseland Studios with Kid Andersen producing. I wrote all of the music except for covers of “Ball And Chain” and “Wade In The Water”. While there is no particular theme to the record, I think all of the music is soulful, and bluesy.”
In addition to the performing in June at the Utah Blues Festival, Odabi has recently been in Italy where she was making a number of appearances at the Poretta Soul Festival, followed by four more dates at the Umbria Jazz Festival, both with the backing of the Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra. In October, she will be on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. And there is another event on the schedule that has been a long time coming.
“I have had a lot of intense conversations with Jimmy Carpenter, who books the acts for the Big Blues Bender in Las Vegas. We covered race, blues and I asked him some straight-forward questions. Why don’t you have more Black women? None of us really have all of the answers, except those who have the control. I think Jimmy and A.J. Gross, CEO of the Bender, may have brewing on the idea of doing a tribute, One For The Queen, which will honor the pioneering blues women. Last year they did a similar tribute, One For The King.
“They asked me to help curate the show, so I have been working with Jimmy to highlight the women who took the blues from the rural areas to the cities, then recorded it for the first time. They deserve some acknowledgment. Jimmy and I started talking about business on our phone calls, but things quickly go off the rails! We end up talking about things that really matter. Jimmy is such a good person.
“With his help, we will be paying tribute to Ma Rainey, Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Victoria Spivey, Ruth Brown, Koko Taylor, and Billie Holiday. It is going to be a great event. I hope that my work with Jimmy will get some other people thinking about what does the blues look like, and is it blues, or is it actually rock music? There needs to be some balance.
“Every one of us has to start somewhere. If you don’t give someone an opportunity, you will never know what their potential will be as far as a draw. I think it would be in the best interest of the blues for the promoters of established festivals to identify great music above all else, whether it is a big name act or not. And try to create a psychedelic color palette on the stage. You shouldn’t have to win the International Blues Challenge to get exposure. There certainly is a growing number of talented young blues artists out there now that people need to hear.
“Another factor is the record companies. A lot of festival promoters give preferential treatment to the artists who are signed to a label. If you are signed to a record label, you probably are signed with a booking agent. There needs to be some diversifying through all of these areas.”
Next up for Odabi is a new album project with backing by guitarist Anthony Paule and his Soul Orchestra, a group that the singer is quite familiar with.
“I have been working with Anthony and his group since 2015, while Wee Willie Walker was the band’s lead vocalist. On occasion, I would tour with them, adding my voice to the mix. When he passed away unexpectedly, they were left without a lead singer. So they asked me if I would take over as their featured vocalist, which I am quite happy about. We will be doing some recording, and I will be also doing some things with my band. And I will be appearing at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September, which has been at the top of my personal bucket list.”
As busy as her schedule is for her music career, Odabi is still working a full-time job. She had worked for the Oakland, CA school district for 27 years until a 2018 layoff gave her a chance to realize her dream of pursuing music as her sole career. However, there were some issues regarding why she had lost her position. After negotiations, the district decided to bring her back.
“During the layoff, I was so excited to have the freedom to do music! I was finally able to say ‘yes” to everything. But then, of course, much of it didn’t happen. When they offered me a new position, I couldn’t pass it up. I have always been passionate about helping others. So now I am a Case Manager for a program called McKinney-Vento, which is a law that provides equal access to education for homeless youths. I love it – and I hope they don’t fire me for doing so much music!
“I have been blessed beyond my wildest dreams performing blues music. It helped me make it through the most difficult time of my life, losing my daughter. If I lost my voice today, I wouldn’t have anything to complain about. The music gives me a greater purpose. Otherwise I would be sitting here with my mind spinning out of control. As a society, women have a really early expiration date in the music industry. And I feel like I am just now hitting my stride. The blues is doing alright by this old woman!”