Odessa Har­ris will be re­mem­bered for her life in song

The Detroit News - - CELEB-A-RAZZI - By Susan Whi­tall

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 swhitall@det­news.com.


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