It was a sad week for fans of old school R&B, as we lost 2 titans of the genre. The passing of Etta James on Friday (January 20, 2012) was duly noted in most of the main-stream media, but somewhat lost was the equally sad news of Johnny Otis‘ passing 3 days earlier (January 17, 2011). What many may not realize is that it was Johnny Otis who discovered and promoted Etta James at the beginning of her career, and without Johnny we may never have had Etta.
Johnny Otis – “The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues”
Born December 28, 1921 in Vallejo, California, Johnny Otis (b. John Alexander Veliotes) grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Berkeley, California, where his father owned and operated a neighborhood grocery store. While his parents were Greek immigrants to the United States, Johnny often said he considered himself “black by persuasion.” Immersed in the black culture of that neighborhood, it was only natural that he was exposed to, and later embraced the “race” music of that era.
Johnny began his musical career playing drums in 1939, and by 1943 he had relocated to the LA area (encouraged by other musicians such as Nat “King” Cole). By 1945 he was leading his own band and his second recording session in LA scored a national R&B hit, the instrumental “Harlem Nocturne,” on Excelsior Records. It put The Johnny Otis Show on the road for over a year.
By the late 40’s however, the sound of black music was changing. The big bands were breaking up, and smaller groups with honking saxes, electric guitars and shouting blues singers were taking over. The music was still being called “blues and rhythm” by the record business magazines, but on the street it was called “rock and roll.”
Willie and the Hand Jive – Live on the Johnny Otis Show
Johnny Otis was in the forefront of the LA rock and roll scene, and by 1950, he was a musical force, with 10 Top Ten hits in that year’s Billboard Rhythm & Blues Records list. In 1958 he scored on both the R&B charts and the Pop charts with his best known title, “Willie and the Hand Jive”
Johnny Otis discovered many legendary R&B singers, such as Esther Phillips, “Big Momma” Thornton, and Etta James, all of whom were at one time featured vocalists in his band. (At Johnny’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, Etta referred to him as her “guru” – Johnny produced her first hit, “Roll With Me, Henry”) He also discovered (and often produced) artists such as Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, and Gladys Knight. Not only a band-leader, he was an accomplished songwriter, arranger, and musician (sitting in with Charles Brown, Lester Young, and the Count Basie Orchestra), who also became a producer (“Big Momma” Thornton, Little Richard) as well as booking agent, tour promoter, road manager, and record label owner (Big Joe Turner, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Charles Brown, and Louis Jordan); he later became a radio disc jockey in Southern California (KFOX) and for eight years hosted a weekly variety show on television, “The Johnny Otis Show” in Los Angeles.
Later in life, Johnny became active in politics, as well as relocated to Northern California where he took up organic farming. He was never far from music though, as he also continued to own and operate live music venues, host radio programs, and even took a hand at teaching music history.
When it came to music, Johnny Otis did it all! His impact on contemporary music was immense, and his legacy will be felt for a very long time. From 1947, here’s Harlem Nocturne by The Johnny Otis Orchestra
Born January 25, 1938 in Los Angeles, California (b. Jamesetta Hawkins) to her then 14 year-old mother, Etta had a rough childhood. Like many black artists of the time, she received her vocal training while part of a Gospel choir at the St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles. She spent her very early years in a series of foster-care situations, but at age 12 her real mother re-located them to San Francisco, where Jamesetta along with a few friends, formed a all-girl vocal group, the Creolettes.
While different stories exist surrounding her first meeting with Johnny Otis, we know for sure that he helped them sign to Modern Records and changed their name from the Creolettes to the Peaches. He also gave the singer her stage name reversing Jamesetta into Etta James. The group released the Otis’ penned “Dance with Me, Henry” (originally titled “Roll with Me, Henry” but changed due to the suggestive title) in early 1955, with Etta getting co-writing credit, and it quickly climbed to the top of the R&B charts, the first of her many Top Ten hits.
By 1960, Etta’s contract with Modern was coming to an end, and she signed with the legendary Chess Records, where Leonard Chess had envisioned James as a classic ballad stylist who had potential to cross over to the pop charts. In late 1960, Etta released her first album for Chess, “At Last!”, from which the single of the same name was released in 1961. It would become Etta’s signature song, and it reached number two on the R&B chart and number 47 on the Billboard Hot 100. For the next few years Etta had a string of R&B and Pop hits, but her career began to wane. After a quiet period, she re-emerged in 1967 with the hits “Tell Mama” and “I’d Rather Go Blind”.
Etta James recreates her 1962 hit Something’s Got A Hold On Me with BB King and band, including Paul Butterfield and Dr John.
Throughout most of the ’70’s she continued to tour and perform, however the chart successes of her earlier days never returned, in part due to her string of legal problems during the early 1970s due to her heroin addiction. By 1978 she left Chess Records and didn’t record for another ten years as she continued to struggle with her drug addiction and alcoholism problems.
From 1987 onwards, Etta released a number of recordings for labels such as Island Records, Elektra and Private Music, with a stronger emphasis first on jazz oriented material and later more traditional blues. Etta won her first Grammy Award, for best jazz vocal performance, in 1994 with her recording “Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday”. In 2001, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and in 2003, she received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as a Star on Hollywood’s Walk-of-Fame. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked her #62 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, and in 2006 she was awarded the Billboard R&B Founders Award.
Etta’s mark on R&B, Soul, Jazz, and Rock & Roll music is reflected in those awards, and few can match the impact she has made on contemporary music. Here is Etta’s (surprisingly) only #1 R&B single “The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry)”
Be sure to check out more music from Johnny Otis and Etta James at John’s Library: johnfoliot.subsonic.org