Born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Alabama, Odetta grew up in Los Angeles, California, and studied music at Los Angeles City College. As a teenager, Odetta's dream was to sing oratorio, but she felt a black woman couldn't become an opera singer. She was classically trained in operatic performance from the age of thirteen, and by 1944 was working in musical theatre — her first professional experience — as an ensemble member with the Hollywood Turnabout Puppet Theatre. Odetta would remain there for four years, working alongside Elsa Lancaster. At the age of nineteen, in 1949, she joined the national touring company of the musical Finian's Rainbow.
While Odetta was on tour with Finian's Rainbow, she began mingling with a group of young balladeers in San Francisco. This chance meeting let Odetta to pursue her career in folksinging. She made her name by playing around the United States in all the big cities, including New York and San Francisco. In San Francisco she and Larry Mohr recorded the 1954 Odetta and Larry for Fantasy Records. Soon afterwards, Odetta began a solo career. Her recordings include Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues (1956) and a live album recorded at the Gate of Horn in Chicago in 1957. Odetta Sings Folk Songs was one of 1963's best-selling folk albums. To really hear Odetta sing and speak on her style of singing, you can check out Odetta: Exploring Life, Music and Song by Homespun Video. Here you get to see the living legend and hear her perform in an intimate venue.