Hot off Hamilton’s Tony-winning raps, Philly’s Leslie Odom Jr. gets back to his performance roots as a solo jazz singer.
Tony Award winner Leslie Odom Jr. left his post as the dueling, rapping rapscallion Aaron Burr in the Broadway sensation Hamilton in July. The nightly grind of putting on the 18th-century garb of pantaloons and ruffled shirts and shooting his pal, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, is over for the Philadelphia native. And its aftereffects are finally setting in.
“It does take some getting used to,” Odom says while in Atlantic City recently, prepping for a concert at the Borgata. “Whether performing as him every day since we were Off Broadway in 2015 or thinking about him while we were in development three years ago, Burr has been the center of my creative life. It’s dreamlike.”
Odom has successfully jumped out of one sizzling frying pan and into another. The handsome vocalist—a jazz and standards lover at heart—reached Number One on iTunes in June, just a week after the release of his eponymous debut album and mere days before his first major performance in his hometown, Wawa’s July 4 Welcome America party on the Parkway. Plus, Odom and the cast of Hamilton performed at the White House for the Obamas.
“Yeah, there have been several ‘pinch me’ moments,” he says with a laugh of all of the “geek-out” and “fan boy” memories he has acquired since the success of Hamilton, which snagged a record-setting 16 Tony nominations and 11 statues, including, for Odom specifically, Best Actor in a Musical. “Did that all just really happen? Do I really have all these new friends?”
With Hamilton now behind him, Odom is excited to return to his singing/songwriting—“we’re booked for the rest of the year, adding dates as we can, and it’s all about discovery”—the roots of which were cultivated on East Oak Lane, where his parents still live. “The funny thing about the hip-hop of Hamilton—channeling my inner Kendrick Lamar—is that that was the new stuff to me, the unfamiliar. Rap is not what I grew up with or grew up singing. So it took me a year to find the MC within me, my authentic voice. For the audience to buy it, I had to buy it. The music on my new album is songs that I grew up with.”
Raised near Germantown’s Canaan Baptist Church, where he performed rich solos in the choir (“my voice just came out that way, better suited to gospel, jazz, and soul”), Odom says he always relied on local mentors and dutiful Philly friends to guide him through his life and his art. As a kid he was very much into spending time with his parents, reading books, and just goofing around. “Like most kids, I thought I was an outsider, the only one who sang in church and loved jazz. I also think I was incredibly average. I liked The Cosby Show and A Different World because they made going to college a thing. Do you know how many people thought Hillman College was real? Back then, though, I was not a good student with anything special about me.”
Things changed at age 10, he says, when he truly discovered the arts: singing beyond the church, oratory. At Masterman School, his coach, Mrs. Frances Turner, identified a gift for speech-writing; later, a teenaged Odom would go on to deliver numerous presentations on the floor of City Council and the Pennsylvania state capitol. Tapping into this newfound talent gave Odom the confidence to explore drama at Freedom Theatre, Philly’s first all-African-American theater. It’s a time in his life that he still refers back to for inspiration, especially when he’s singing songs from his debut album. “Everything that I have ever been and ever sung is salt for the stew on this new album of mine,” he says, considering timeless classics like “Autumn Leaves,” rousing neospirituals such as “Look for the Silver Lining,” and even delicate new arrangements of tunes like “The Guilty Ones” from Broadway’s bawdy Spring Awakening.
“My past, even the recent past, goes into every song I sing. I want the inspiration of all of my life—be it Canaan Baptist, the clown I was at my fifth birthday party, my glee at watching Michael Jackson, all the disappointment and joy—to be available to me.”
photography by CHrisToPHer BouDewyns