Last April, on the first Friday night when spring seemed truly possible, Odessa Harris sang blues, jazz, and R&B chestnuts and made them appropriately frisky and lustful. The buzz-cut, fluffed crowd at Goodnite Gracie mostly screamed at each other, but Harris laid the music on them nonetheless. Backed by R. J. Spangler on drums, John Barron on guitar, and Duncan McMillian on the Hammond B-3, Harris, clad in a black outfit topped by a jaunty cap, made it perfectly clear that she was here to have a good time. Now in her sixties, this 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.
By the middle of the second set, a young woman in a sparkly skirt toddled to the small space before the stage area and began dancing, joined a moment later by a guy in a retro shirt. In the middle of the song — Buddy Johnson's "Since I Fell for You," I think it was — the band took the instrumental, and Harris just stood looking out into the dark. Suddenly, the dancing woman reached out her arms to her. Harris welcomed her into a long, hard hug. The girl wandered back into her dance, and Harris tucked into the next verse, her smile wider than ever. Hope, as they say, springs eternal . . .
Odessa Harris returns to Goodnite Gracie on Saturday, November 22.