Odette Jackson was one of a group of singers in the '20s and '30s whose talents were put to use on both gospel and blues recordings. The division between these genres -- one perceived as holy, one unholy and unruly -- dominates biographical information about black artists from this era like the concept of "the good guy" in the plot of an oater. A split existed even within the formation Jackson was best known for, the gospel duo of Odette & Ethel. Sister Ethel Grainger, the other half of the partnership, did not, apparently, perform outside the context of gospel music. Grainger's brother did, however, making great use of both the left and right hand on on the many classic blues and early jazz recordings on which Porter Grainger is credited.
While Sister Ethel counted her rosary beads and waited for instructions from on high, her brother and singing partner were there in the background on hits by top female performers whose mastery is the main reason they should be considered true blues-smiths. An avid desire to make a cheap pun over the names of Bessie Smith and Clara Smith is only a minor part of the proceedings. The latter Smith's recording entitled "Rock, Church, Rock" makes great use of Jackson's voice in a capacity that technically might be called background singing. Fans of vintage black gospel would counter that in this type of music, there is no background. The foreground action certainly influenced the hybrid of gospel and rhythm & blues that innovators such as Ray Charles would eventually plant on the airwaves.
Odette & Ethel's recording career went locomotive in the mid-'20s with the first commercial release of a gospel standard entitled "When the Train Comes Along." The number is also associated with old-time music picker Uncle Dave Macon and many subsequent bluegrass ensembles that included it in the gospel stops on the set itinerary. Some 75 years later, the most widely heard sides featuring both Odette & Ethel come from the early discography of Reverend J.C. Burnett. Odette & Ethel were all or part of his background singer contingent, but only in the sense that the slope of a volcano is in the background of an eruption. The singers who participated in Burnett's works, collected on two massive Document volumes, include Anne C. Graham, who went on to a minor rhythm & blues recording career. Fats Waller was the organist on several Burnett selections.