When Odia Coates’ pastor at Prayer Garden Church of God in Christ in San Jose learned in 1966 that she was singing in nightclubs, he promptly kicked her out of the choir.
She was performing at such clubs as Al’s House of Smiles on East 14th in Oakland and at Wayne Manor in Sunnyvale, where she was backed by the then-little-known band Sly and the Family Stone.
She was also backed by Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers – a rising group that included future comedy star Tommy Chong on guitar and would soon hit big with a song about interracial romance, titled “Does Your Mama Know About Me?”
By 1971, she was headlining at the Playboy Club in San Francisco.
Although her pastor rejected her, the musical lessons Coates had learned earlier in church remained at the core of her singing style.
She sung as a teenager with the Southern California State Youth Choir, which also included Billy Preston and Merry Clayton. Coates would later join Clayton in a group of ex-Raeletts called the Sisters Love.
Coates was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and raised in the Watts section of Los Angeles.
While living in San Jose – before moving to East Palo Alto and eventually to Oakland – she sang gospel with the Gill Sisters, whose pianist was future star Edwin Hawkins.
In 1973, when pop star Paul Anka was producing an album for Hawkins, the gospel singer recommended Coates to Anka.
“Paul was thinking,” Coates told this writer in 1975, “‘All I want to hear about is another female vocalist, but yet the name sounds very professional. Have her come up here.’”
She auditioned in Las Vegas and spent the next five years touring and recording with Anka. She was featured on his controversial 1974 million-dollar-seller “(You’re) Having My Baby” and the subsequent hits “One Man Woman/One Woman Man” and “I Don’t Like to Sleep Alone.”
Coates also recorded an album of her own in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with producer Rick Hall for United Artists Records, and singles for United Artists, Buddah and Epic. Although none of her solo recordings were national hits, several received airplay on Oakland radio station KDIA.
While recording with Anka, Coates was asked by Hall and other producers to tone down her melismas and other gospel vocal techniques in order to better appeal to white pop audiences.
“It’s too bad you have to go through certain channels because of race, but that’s what they do,” Coates said in 1973.
Four years later, after leaving Anka, she said in an interview with this writer, “I’m singing a variety of things now, but at least I’m singing my soulful things with more conviction than I did before.”
Coates succumbed to breast cancer in 1991 at the Oakland Medical Center. She was 49.