Odessa Harris will be remembered for her life in song
Singer Odessa Harris, who died in Detroit of heart failure a week ago at age 71, almost melted into obscurity after she gave up the music business in the 1980s. Although she’d toured with B.B. King and cut records on Capitol, she’d put that life behind her.
But then in the ’90s, Harris met Detroit trumpeter Marcus Belgrave at a Buddhist gathering where Harris happened to be singing.
“Where have you been? Why aren’t you singing somewhere?” Belgrave wanted to know.
Belgrave continued to prod her until finally Harris agreed to sit in at Bomac’s on Gratiot. He then took her to the Music Menu in Greektown to meet bluesman/manager R.J. Spangler. R.J., Belgrave knew, was the blues go-to guy who would set her up with gigs.
And so he did. Spangler arranged for Duncan W. McMillan to be her music director, and McMillan was launched on a relationship with the singer that started out professional, but became very personal, with Harris fondly calling him her “adopted son.”
The never-married Harris left no survivors and was not in touch with her relatives back in Arkansas, but she leaves her musical family and many friends, including McMillan, to whom she was a second mother. “I need you to have me some grandbabies,” she would chide her pianist.
Dessie Mae Williams was born in 1936 in West Helena, Ark. She was in her early 20s when bluesman B.B. King heard her sing one night at a Florida nightclub.
King told her if she wanted a job with him, to be on the bus with her bag at 7 a.m. the next morning. She made it.
Harris sang with B.B. King’s orchestra from 1959-’61, and he chose her stage name, “Odessa Harris.” With King’s band she was known for a sizzling version of the Roosevelt Sykes-penned classic “Driving Wheel.”
Later she met up with Nancy Wilson’s manager Jack Millman, who took her on as an artist. She ended up in Detroit, performing with an old friend, Sonny Freeman, who had been the drummer in B.B. King’s band. Harris was the featured singer with Sonny Freeman and the Unusuals for many years, until his death in the late 1980s. After that she lost her heart for the business.
But once she hooked up with McMillan and Spangler, Harris took up performing again as if she’d never been away. She and the group cut an album, “The Easy Life,” (Eastlawn Records, 2003).
While she fought cancer and emphysema in recent years, last winter she undertook a tour in northern Michigan with McMillan and Spangler.
Although she was using an oxygen tank offstage, onstage the singer was hitting notes McMillan had never heard her reach.
A public memorial will be held for Harris in the next few weeks at the SGI-USA Buddhist Community Center, 16990 W. 12 Mile, in Southfield, date and time to be determined.
For more information, go to myspace.com/theodessa harrisgroup. You can reach Susan Whitall at (313) 222-2156 or email@example.com.