Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
Winter has technically been over for a few days, but the snow and cold never leave Chicago alone just because we’ve passed the equinox. So I’m sneaking in one last installment of the Secret History of Chicago Music’s Winter Blues series. Andrew “Big Voice” Odom is an archetypal example of the underappreciated Windy City bluesman: he had humble beginnings in the south, he was an extraordinarily talented vocalist, and though he enjoyed some success in his lifetime, he didn’t reach the exalted tier of immortals who remain household names today. It’s possible Odom simply had too broad a range for his own good, and because he sang for so many different bands he never dug deeply enough into a single niche in the blues landscape.
Odom was born in Denham Springs, Louisiana, on December 15, 1936, and began singing gospel at his family’s church. In 1955, Odom moved to East Saint Louis, Illinois, and in short order began performing with heavy hitters such as Johnny Williams and Albert King. In the late 50s, he began to sing with a band led by Johnny O’Neal, a veteran of Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm. Odom made his recorded debut in 1961, belting it out on a 45 by Little Aaron & His Band—a group that included guitarist Willie Kizart, also of the Kings of Rhythm. It was released by the tiny Marlo label from Belleville, Illinois.
In 1960 Odom had moved to Chicago, which would be his home for the rest of his life. Through O’Neal, he’d met guitar god Earl Hooker, and he soon began singing for Hooker’s band. During their time together, the guitarist became famous for his electric innovations to the blues, including using a wah-wah pedal coupled with a slide to create a genuinely unearthly sound. (The modern version of the wah-wah pedal is a relatively recent invention, introduced in 1967.) Odom’s gruff, soulful delivery and dapper look—he wore a suit and tie with a hat—fit perfectly with Hooker’s band, whose amazing lineup included fellow luminaries Pinetop Perkins (piano), Carey Bell (harmonica), and Freddie Roulette (guitar).
During his decade with Hooker, Odom cut a single in 1966, billed to Andre Odom, for small Chicago label Nation Records. In 1969, as Andrew “Voice” Odom, he recorded his debut LP, Farther on Down the Road, which featured Hooker and pianist Johnny “Big Moose” Walker. It was belatedly released by BluesWay in 1973, three years after Hooker’s death. By then Odom had moved on to a long-standing gig with another ax-toting legend, Jimmy Dawkins.
Odom sometimes went by “B.B.” or “Blues Boy,” because he loved B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland and could convincingly imitate their singing styles. It was with Dawkins that he acquired his most enduring nickname, though: “Big Voice.” Odom remained a churchgoer throughout his life, and his singing combined gospel fervor with enough power to overwhelm the makeshift sound systems at the Maxwell Street market, where he’d sometimes make spontaneous appearances on summer Sunday mornings.
In 1971 Odom sang on the sessions for Dawkins’s second album, the acclaimed Delmark release All for Business, which also featured the godly Otis Rush on six-string. Odom toured the world with Dawkins while continuing to play in south- and west-side clubs, hoping to become a headliner in his own right. In the mid-70s he released several charmingly raw records on local imprint Wasp Music, mostly of material by label owner Frank Walker, including the single “I Got This Bad Feeling” (as “B.B.” Odom with the Ear Benders). In 1982 he recorded his second solo album, Feel So Good, with backing by Magic Slim & the Teardrops, for French label Isabel.
Odom’s frequent work for Dawkins and other stars, including Buddy Guy, Little Milton, and Magic Slim, made it difficult for him to keep together a working band of his own and develop original material. And because he had seven children to help support, he had to go where the money was—which all but guaranteed that his solo career would stay on the back burner.
By the beginning of the 90s, though, Odom was regularly fronting long-running Chicago group the Griff Band, and two Canadian musicians, guitarist Steve Katz and bassist Doran Katz, asked Odom to sing for their band the Gold Tops. Beloved roots-music label Flying Fish dug the band’s demo and signed them in December 1991.
In 1992 Odom and the band released the critically acclaimed album Goin’ to California, billed to Andew “B.B.” Odom & the Gold Tops and featuring Chicago guitarist Steve Freund. (Confusingly, Odom’s catalog also includes a live album called Going to California, recorded in 1976 at west-side club Ma Bea’s.) Tragically, Odom didn’t live to see it—he died of a heart attack in the wee hours of December 23, 1991, in the middle of a night of club-hopping. He was driving with his wife Laura from Buddy Guy’s Legends back to the Checkerboard Lounge, and when he lost control of the car and hit a tree near 40th and Michigan, only she survived.
Odom was a hard-gigging bluesman to the end, and his wrenching, muscular voice moved uncountable Chicagoans over his three decades here. His work is still celebrated and has been reissued on several compilations, most recently the 2017 Storyville Records box set The Chicago Blues Box 2. The eight-CD collection also includes Eddy Clearwater, living legend Jimmy Johnson, and Odom’s old cohorts Jimmy Dawkins and Magic Slim, so Big Voice clearly has a place in Chicago blues history—at least in the eyes of those who care to look. v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.