Detroit chanteuse is still quite the gamine. Via her impish smile and Betty Boop eyes, she pulls emotions from her depths like a magician with endless silk scarves.
Odessa Harris began singing in the choir of her Baptist church in West Helena, Arkansas. She'd already been performing with local bands at crap houses for a couple of years by the time she made her debut on the King Biscuit Time radio show at age fourteen. From there, Harris worked the carnival circuit, toured with B.B. King, and traveled the Midwest with B.B.'s drummer, Sonny Freeman. But the years took their toll, and in the late 1980s, exhausted and in ill health, she took a break. Detroit trumpet star Marcus Belgrave befriended her both are Buddhists and coaxed her out of retirement and back onto the stage. Good thing.
Harris has a big voice, rock-steady and flirtatious as she explores the beat, the language of these old songs, and all the ways love can sound. She and her band dangled soul and jazz classics in front of the youthful crowd "Stand by Me," "Fly Me to the Moon" and slowly started reeling them in. (When I caught her at the Firefly about a year ago, the set was slightly more obscure.) But what I love best about her is the way she lets the song just be. Oh, she works it, no doubt about it, but there's a simplicity to her approach that keeps melody front and center. I found this true when I listened to her new CD, Odessa Harris: The Easy Life, a compendium of ten songs, mostly penned by her band members and other Detroit musicians, including the great pianist Bill Heid.