Remembering Etta James and Johnny Otis

The week of January 16, which began with the observation of the birthday of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., brought news of the deaths of R&B singer Etta James and R&B bandleader Johnny Otis, both inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It is sadly appropriate first that the deaths of James and Otis should occur in the same week—it was Otis who discovered James—and that both should die during the week that marks the commemoration of the slain African-American civil rights leader.


Etta James not only had the vocal pyrotechnics to sell the emotion of a song but the tumultuous backstory of her own life to make it authentic. Her throaty, powerful voice, which deepened as she got older, served as an inspiration to Janis Joplin, who made James's urgent, sexy "Tell Mama" a staple of her live sets. Yet James managed to retain the subtlety and shading that provided a wealth of dimension to her interpretations of the lyrics, for example, using just a touch of gospel-tinged melisma for effect—a technique that Mariah Carey and many others are prone to overuse. James's voice is indeed a bridge from black musical styles (rhythm and blues, gospel, and early soul) to white rock and roll and later urban styles—although it was a voice in the wilderness for many years.


Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938 to an African-American mother and a father whose identity remained unknown to her—James suspected that the legendary billiards player Minnesota Fats might be her father—she was raised largely by relatives and friends thanks to her mother's frequent absences. Taking refuge in music, she began singing in church; then, when her mother reappeared and took James to San Francisco, she formed a girl-group, the Creolettes (so-named for the members' fair skins), while in her teens. The Creolettes were discovered by bandleader Johnny Otis, who helped them craft an answer record to R&B singer Hank Ballard's "Work with Me, Annie." (Coincidentally, Ballard was also discovered by the enterprising Otis, more on whom shortly.) Released on the Modern label, "Roll with Me, Henry" was the result, a hit single albeit under the anodyne title "The Wallflower" as the original title was thought to be too explicit for radio.


Despite this first blush of success, nothing more was forthcoming on Modern, so James moved to Chicago and a contract with the legendary Chess Records, at which James first established her bona fides. Working with Harvey Fuqua, whose own illustrious career included founding the doo-wop act the Moonglows (themselves inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000) before working with Berry Gordy to establish Motown Records, James recorded the tracks that made her reputation, including her signature songs "At Last" and "I'd Rather Go Blind" (the latter originally the B-side to her "Tell Mama" single). James and Fuqua had not only recorded duets together dating back to James's stint at Modern, they shared a romantic link as well. (As a teenager, James was also romantically linked to B.B. King, whose classic "Sweet Sixteen" is reputedly about her.)


It was Leonard Chess, the founder of the label, who recognized James's crossover potential and framed her arrangements accordingly, such as the strings that famously underpin "At Last." Yet James's voice, an exceedingly agile instrument, couldn't help but convey the blues emotionally if not technically, and certainly the song titles alone bore her heartbreak and pain even at such a relatively young age: "I'd Rather Go Blind," "I Wish Someone Would Care," All I Could Do Was Cry," "Fool That I Am." One of the showcase scenes in director Darnell Martin's film Cadillac Records, the disappointing 2008 dramatization of the rise of Chess Records, finds Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) attempting to console a drugged and distraught James (Beyoncé Knowles) in her home. Their intimate interaction clearly suggests a sexual relationship—probably dramatic shorthand as it was more likely Fuqua involved with her—as well as the larger emotional train wreck that was James's life, which in turn spurred her emotional push in the studio. Indeed, one of the highlights of the film is Beyonce's stunning rendition of "I'd Rather Go Blind" at the climax of the story, a genuine tribute to James.


However, James's personal problems hindered her professional career almost from the start. By the mid-1960s she had already entered a California rehab facility; emerging clean, she recorded a strong Chess album, Tell Mama (1968), spotlighted by the title track and a cover of Otis Redding's "Security," both of which became hits. In the 1970s, James was paired with rock producer Gabriel Meckler to enhance her crossover appeal (a strategy also pursued around this time by Tina Turner), which found her to be a strong interpreter of Randy Newman's songs. Following more personal trauma, including another rehab stint, James left Chess—the death of the label's founder Leonard Chess in 1969 had left James shaken—for Warner Brothers in 1978. Working with famed former Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler, who had lent focus to a young and professionally struggling Aretha Franklin, James released Deep in the Night, which showed promise before she succumbed to drug addiction that plagued her for much of the 1980s.


James re-emerged in the late 1980s, most notably with a pair of live albums (Blues in the Night: The Early Show and Blues in the Night: The Late Show, both released on Fantasy in 1986) and with an appearance in Taylor Hackford's acclaimed 1987 Chuck Berry concert film Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll; she duets with Berry on "Rock and Roll Music"—with Berry mugging comically as the rotund James advances on him onstage; James had sung background vocals on some of Berry's sides back in the Chess days.


By the 1990s, James's renaissance was in full-flower. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in an unusual display of foresight and common sense, inducted James in 1993. The following year, she won a Grammy for her album Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday, regarded as one of her greatest albums. Certainly the parallels between James's and Holiday's ravaged personal lives provided the emotional underpinning, and the technical challenge of interpreting one of the twentieth century's greatest voices pushed James's talents to their peak; James manages to put her own stamp on the Holiday hallmarks "The Man I Love," "Body and Soul," and especially "Lover Man"—quite an accomplishment.


Mystery Lady marked James's transition into jazz; the last years of her career found her a regular at jazz festivals while continuing to release jazz-inflected albums and inspiring a new generation of singers including Amy Winehouse (who seemed to embrace James's drug-abusing ways as well). James told her life story in her autobiography (co-authored with David Ritz) A Rage to Survive, published in 1995. Recognition and accolades for James, rediscovered as one of the great early influences on rock and soul, continued to pour in even as the effects of a lifetime of abuse began to manifest themselves. Suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's disease, James had also been diagnosed with leukemia in 2011. Etta James died on January 20, 2012, five days shy of her 74th birthday.


I have two overriding impressions of Etta James. The first is probably the first time I became aware of her; that was seeing her in Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. I watched in awe as this huge African-American woman appeared onstage with Chuck Berry to sing "Rock and Roll Music," cajoling him, cavorting with him, her powerful voice taking the spotlight away from the star of the show. At one point, James begins to tower over Berry, singing full-bore into his face, as Berry shrinks toward the floor in mock-terror, his eyes bulging as it appears he is about to be smothered.


My second impression involves the use of James's "At Last" in the television series Northern Exposure. (Northern Exposure is probably my favorite television show of all time—being introduced to it by my ex-wife Kathy is one of the positives from that relationship—and outlining why this intelligent, sophisticated, endearing comedy-drama is so special is a separate essay. How integral the wonderful and amazing musical choices featured in the show were to the overall brilliance of the episodes is another essay entirely—and why the DVD versions of the episodes, which couldn't license much of the music used in the show and had to fill the gaps with incidental music, remain inferior to the versions broadcast commercially is yet another essay unto itself. But I digress.)


In the Season Two finale, "Slow Dance," bush pilot Maggie O'Connell (Janine Turner) loses her boyfriend, who was killed by a satellite falling to earth. (Yes, that's a prime example of the offbeat humor that made Northern Exposure so "quirky," although death-by-falling-satellite did show up later as the premise for another off-kilter series, Dead Like Me.) Maggie of course goes through the stages of grief, abetted by the show's romantic sparring partner for her, doctor Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow). In the final scene, after Maggie has come to terms with the loss of her boyfriend, she and Joel are in the local bar when "At Last" comes on the jukebox. Joel encourages Maggie to dance, telling her that it is a great song, and the two of them indeed slow-dance to the rich, joyous strains of James's voice, underscored by that swelling string arrangement. "At Last" not only closes that chapter of Maggie's life, it serves as a portent of her relationship with Joel, and it is one of the most effective uses of music to complement a storyline in Northern Exposure's run.


Despite his nickname "The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues," Johnny Otis, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a non-performer in 1994, gets lost in the pages of rock-era history. In fact, Otis is a seminal figure in the development of rhythm and blues that translated into early rock and soul, as a musician, bandleader, songwriter, tour promoter, talent scout, and overall impresario.


Born John Veliotes to Greek parents in Vallejo, California, in 1921, Otis grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood and quickly identified with the culture. He decided at an early age that if he was forced to choose between a white identity or a black identity, he would choose to be black. A drummer, vibraphonist, and pianist, Otis came of musical age during the heyday of swing and big-band jazz, and when their popularity began to wane, the expense of maintaining those large ensembles began to show. Adopting the stage name Johnny Otis, he was one of the first to pare those bands into smaller combos while picking up stronger cues from blues bands, thus helping to invent R&B. He even scored an instrumental hit in 1946 with a cover of "Harlem Nocturne," a moody piece later covered by the Viscounts.


Otis hit his stride in the 1950s. His song "Willie and the Hand Jive" hit the pop Top Ten in 1958 and passed into early-rock lore, covered by numerous acts while figuring into the stage and film versions of Grease. Although it was his best-known song, Otis contributed a number of songs, such as 1950's Number One R&B hit "Cupid's Boogie," which featured Little Esther Phillips duetting with Mel Walker, to the R&B and rock canon. (Eric Clapton scored a hit with "Willie and the Hand Jive," from 461 Ocean Boulevard, in 1974 and recorded a cover of Otis's amusing "Crazy Country Hop" for his 1983 Money and Cigarettes album.) He wrote all of Phillips's early hits (and when Phillips died in 1984, Otis conducted her funeral services) while also writing "Every Beat of My Heart," an early hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips, and "So Fine," a hit for the Fiestas, while co-writing "Dance with Me, Henry" with Etta James. Otis was also a producer, particularly for Big Mama Thornton and her rendition of the Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller song "Hound Dog," later a huge early hit for Elvis Presley.


But Otis's most significant contributions were as a spotter of talent and as a bandleader, most notably with the Johnny Otis Show, which was among the first to showcase blues and R&B stars in a traveling revue. In addition to finding and promoting Etta James and Esther Phillips, Otis also discovered Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, and Hank Ballard—all three are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—among others. Otis was also instrumental in furthering Little Richard's nascent career; their 1953 collaboration "Little Richard's Boogie" was an early indication of the rolling drive Little Richard would bring to his later smash hits. In addition to singers Esther Phillips and Mel Walker, Otis hired an R&B vocal group called the Robins to be his back-up singers; the Robins would later find fame under the name the Coasters (and would also become Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees in 1987). Otis's son Shuggie gained prominence by his teens for his guitar-playing prowess and soon found himself playing with a number of blues, rock and soul musicians including Bobby "Blue" Bland, Etta James, Al Kooper, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, and Frank Zappa while also working with his father in the studio and on stage.


Having led and toured with bands beginning in the 1940s, Otis for many years assembled all-star revues that featured some of the biggest names in blues and R&B. One such aggregation performed at the 1970 Monterey Jazz Festival, an assemblage immortalized on the classic The Johnny Otis Show Live at Monterey!, which featured Phillips, Vinson, Big Joe Turner, Ivory Joe Hunter, Roy Brown, Roy Milton, and Pee Wee Crayton ripping it up. Throughout the years, as R&B fell in and out of favor with listeners and musicians, Otis kept the flame alive, often providing one of the few outlets to see these performers in concert.


Yet Otis proved himself to be quite the renaissance man. In the 1950s, he hosted both radio and television shows in Los Angeles. (Local television in many American cities in the 1950s and into the 1960s often offered the opportunity to see and hear both budding and established popular talent. In Philadelphia, one local show that featured young dancers bopping to the latest singles and then evaluating them grew in popularity until it became a national phenomenon—and thus American Bandstand was born.) He wrote several books—his first book Listen to the Lambs, published in 1968, reflected on the Watts Riots of 1965—painted, and sculpted, and he even became an organic farmer and grocer. Otis also became a pastor, founding the Landmark Community Church in Los Angeles, and later the Landmark Community Gospel Church in Northern California. In the 1960s, Otis ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the California State Assembly (unsuccessful probably because he ran under his given name of Veliotes instead of his better-known stage name), but he didn't abandon politics: He became associated with California politician Mervyn Dymally, becoming Dymally's deputy chief of staff as the Trinidadian-born Dymally served as a state assemblyman; then Otis followed Dymally's career as a state senator, a U.S. Congressman, and as the Lieutenant Governor of California from 1975 to 1979 under Jerry Brown (whose own musical connection included a relationship with Linda Ronstadt), the first black to serve as the state's Lieutenant Governor. That makes Otis's death one day after the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday especially poignant.


My own memory of Johnny Otis is a strong and lasting one. In the 1980s, Otis hosted a weekly radio show on KPFA, the Berkeley, California-based FM station in the free-speech, listener-sponsored Pacifica network, which was rebroadcast on the Los Angeles affiliate KPFK. In the late 1980s, I worked the swing shift as a gas-station cashier while I went to college during the day. It was a dreary, soul-sapping job, filled with patrons tossing their money and credit cards at me and barking when the pump didn't work right, but every Monday night from 8 to 10 PM I could count on The Johnny Otis Show to get me through the shift.


It always seemed as if Otis was broadcasting the show from his kitchen table—he in fact was broadcasting from a Sevastopol, California, eatery and invited local listeners to stop in to see the show live—and he was usually surrounded by family, friends, bandmates, or whoever happened to be available when he went on the air, swapping stories, anecdotes, and jokes as he spun a treasury of black music from a Louis Jordan 1940s jump-blues to an early Marvin Gaye soul shot to a funky Sly Stone classic. Even back then I was familiar with many of his better-known choices, so I hung onto the hidden gems and obscurities, particularly the sides that he himself had somehow had a hand in, such as tracks with Etta James, Esther Phillips, or Hank Ballard and the Midnighters.


Otis wasn't averse to bringing out a big-band blast from Count Basie or Duke Ellington, or even a frothy, sophisticated proto-disco track from the Spinners, but it was apparent that his sweet spot was R&B and soul from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. However, he made it clear that it wasn't that he didn't like other kinds of music—he spoke of his friendship with and respect for Frank Zappa and his music, for example—only that this was the music that he loved, and that he thought needed to be shared with those either who had forgotten it or had never heard it in the first place.


It has been years since I last heard The Johnny Otis Show, but even as I write this now I can hear his voice in my head: soft-spoken, low-key, personable, slightly husky and utterly without pretense, a remarkable quality for a man who was so integral to the formation of rock and soul music. When he spoke about Jackie Wilson or Etta James, there was never a sense of name-dropping about him; when he spoke of Esther Phillips, who died in 1984 and at whose funeral he presided, there was genuine sorrow and longing.

That's how I feel now, reflecting on the passing of both Etta James and Johnny Otis. To be honest, I feel the loss of Johnny Otis more because his radio show was a fixture at a certain time in my life, his yarns and his reflections forming an impression that much stronger from having been shaped by that most intimate of media: radio. James was the better-known of the two, but it is quite possible that we wouldn't have known about her had it not been for Otis. Such is life, and death, and remembering.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 March 2015 18:47

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