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Big Voice

The World Lost a Wonderful Bluesman

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Oh, it's been so long

Since I had to shed a tear

Been so long

Since I had to shed a tear

It's a lonely, lonely feeling

When you've lost someone so dear

Well your head hangs down

And there's a teardrop falling from your eye

Your head hangs down

And there's a teardrop falling from your eye

It's a lonely, lonely, lonely feeling

When you tell your friend good-bye...

When Andrew "Big Voice" Odom sang "Memo Blues," you felt you were in the presence of joy being wrenched from deepest agony. There are a lot of blues tributes to departed friends and musicians, but seldom has grief been portrayed more grippingly than in Odom's song. That his performance was uplifting despite the bleak subject was a testimony both to his artistry and to the redemptive power of the blues.

The first time I heard "Memo Blues" was on a Sunday afternoon at Florence's Lounge at 55th and Shields. Magic Slim and the Teardrops were the house band, and the usual Sunday jam session was in full swing. Odom, a plump, dapper man who looked like he'd just come from church, ambled onto the stage and took the microphone into his hands as the band riffed slowly behind him. Suddenly his voice, with a muscular power and an aching gospel vibrato, soared into stratospheric realms of longing. His primary stylistic role model was obviously Bobby "Blue" Bland, but even in his heyday Bland had seldom achieved the intensity Odom was displaying.

My eyes filled with tears as I sat in stunned disbelief. I'd recently moved to Chicago from New England, hoping to experience some of the fabled power of the blues on its home turf. Now, in a little neighborhood bar, in front of a crowd of regulars who seemed to take it all in stride, a singer I'd never heard before was creating music I hadn't imagined possible.

I saw Odom many times after that, and he never disappointed me. He used to say he was torn between his religious beliefs and his secular career; he was determined to someday quit the blues and return to church. Nobody wanted him to deprive the blues world of his talents, but the idea of Odom singing gospel was tantalizing: more than most blues and soul musicians, he imbued every performance with gospel fervor.

Sometimes he became so caught up in the moment that he dragged things out too long, moaning verse after verse and working himself into a frighteningly intense state. Sweat would pour off him, he'd jump up and down, the veins on his forehead would bulge--you almost expected him to start speaking in tongues. Such house-wrecking performances didn't always hold the interest of good-timey tavern audiences, but they would have been devastating in a religious setting.

Odom was born in Denham Springs, Louisiana, in 1936. He sang in church as a youth, but by the mid-50s he was working around the Saint Louis area with bluesmen such as Albert King and Johnny O'Neal. He recorded a single on the Marlo label during this period under the name "Little Aaron."

After arriving in Chicago in 1960, he joined the band of influential guitarist Earl Hooker as the featured vocalist; Odom traveled with Hooker until Hooker's death in 1970, and recorded with him several times. He later appeared on a series of LPs, both under his own name and as a guest artist with Jimmy Dawkins, for a series of small independent labels in the U.S. and Europe. He also cut a 45 for Nation during the 60s as well as a remarkable LP for the Chicago-based WASP label in 1976, a rough-hewn production that many fans thought contained some of the most straight-forward, honest music he ever recorded.

Somewhere along the line Odom acknowledged his debt to B.B. King by taking the nickname "B.B." He was also known as "Little B.B." and "B.B. Junior," though in recent years he seemed to prefer "Voice" or "Big Voice" as a monicker. To add to the confusion, he often called himself Andre rather than Andrew.

As talented as he was, Odom seemed unable to permanently expand his career beyond the local circuit, though he occasionally toured and was a favorite in Europe and Canada. It was partly the perennial dilemma of the scuffling bluesman: unable to pay enough to keep a working band together, he had little opportunity to develop new material with sidemen. He relied mostly on standards, so his shows could become predictable--a fast blues, a slow blues, another fast blues, sometimes several songs in the same key. He tried to overcome the sameness by adding even more emotional heat. That usually worked, but he seldom got the opportunity to display the versatility and depth of which he was capable.

Over the last couple years it looked as if things might be changing. He'd been gigging in Chicago on a more or less steady basis with the Griff Band. He'd also done a recording session in Canada with some topflight musicians, including Chicago guitarist Steve Freund; the record is due out on Flying Fish later this year, and Odom was looking forward to touring with the group again.

Nobody loved to entertain more than Odom did. On nights when he wasn't working he'd travel from club to club, sitting in whenever possible, pouring his entire being into his performances. On Sunday mornings in the summertime he'd show up at the Maxwell Street market and overwhelm the makeshift sound systems with his powerful voice. He was always surrounded by people, laughing and joking, relishing the camaraderie and his role as life of the party.

Early Monday morning December 23, Odom suffered a heart attack while driving south on Michigan Avenue with his wife Laura. He lost control of the car, hit a tree around 40th Street, and was killed. He'd been club hopping and was on his way back to the Checkerboard Lounge on 43rd Street, which he'd left earlier that evening to visit Buddy Guy's Legends in the South Loop. The funeral was delayed until January 2, when his wife was well enough to attend.

Bluesmen's funerals can be dreary affairs, with preachers sometimes using the occasion to denounce the sinfulness of those in attendance and even making remarks about the uncertain fate of the departed's soul. But Elder W.E. Whitehead of the Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church on 42nd Street is that rare cleric who's not afraid to love this world as fervently as he prays for the glory of the next. The funeral, described in the program as "A Service of Celebration for the Life of Mr. Andrew B.B. Odom," was exactly that. There was magnificent singing, some rousing revival-style preaching, and a lot of reassuring comments from clergy and laypeople alike ("Hang on--just hang on!" several speakers exhorted Odom's wife and family).

"There are no sad funerals at this church!" Whitehead proclaimed. Another speaker suggested that though B.B. King had sung "The Thrill Is Gone," B.B. Odom now knew that for him the thrill was just beginning. "Sleep on, B.," bluesman Artie "Blues Boy" White intoned tenderly in the middle of a moving gospel tribute to his friend.

Whitehead had the congregation doubled over in laughter during his concluding remarks, and then he eloquently addressed any who might question such an outpouring in memory of a man who'd spent much of his life singing what some still consider the devil's music. Whitehead said we sing folk songs because of the heritage they represent, we sing the Gospel because it gives us strength, and we sing the blues because we hurt. "A teardrop," he concluded, "is the relief valve of the soul."

As Odom sang in "Memo Blues":

The world lost a wonderful bluesman

And his spirit's still in the air

Yes the world lost a wonderful bluesman

And his spirit's still in the air

May he join a band of angels

And start a blues band there.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.

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