Two Los Angeles-based legends of Rhythm & Blues passed away last week: Etta James and Johnny Otis. Both of their stories intertwined in the fabric of the music genre they had a major role in creating, and in the turbulent times they lived through. Their careers helped shatter “color lines” in music for a mass, multiracial audience; in the process they shaped a truly diverse People’s Music: an amalgam of Jazz, Pop, Gospel, Blues, and R & B.
Johnny Otis, born John Veliotes, the son of Greek immigrants, as a youth became so immersed in African American music and culture that he considered himself “Black by persuasion.” He started out as a musician playing drums in big bands, first in the West Oakland Houserockers, later relocating to Los Angeles with Harlan Leonard’s jazz orchestra. By 1945 Otis had formed his own band, and recorded his first hit, “Harlem Nocturne.”
Later in the forties, he toured with his California Rhythm and Blues Caravan, featuring thirteen-year-old vocalist Esther Phillips. The group had 10 top 10 R & B hits in 1950. Otis’ bands developed a hybrid sound combining the high technical standards of big band jazz with raw gutbucket energy of gospel and blues – in the process bringing what was considered “Black Music” to a diverse audience and laying down the foundation for Rock & Roll. In fact, Otis co-wrote and played drums on the original version of “Hound Dog” in 1953, but was later dropped from the writing credit on the Elvis Presley version.
In addition to Esther Phillips, another of Otis’ amazing discoveries was the prodigious singer Etta James. Born Jamesetta Hawkins, and having started singing at age five in a Los Angeles Baptist church, Etta James was soon performing with the choir on radio. Otis signed James to a record deal in 1954, and at age 15 she co-wrote and recorded her first hit, “Roll with me Henry” (1955). The teenager’s huge voice and lively delivery made the song an instant classic. DJs, uneasy with the perceived suggestiveness of the song, changed the title to “The Wallflower.” Later, as was the practice in the days of segregation, a white artist covered a watered-down version of the song, which became a bigger pop hit.
Johnny Otis released his signature pop crossover hit “Willie and the Hand Jive” in 1958, but his music career stalled a bit during the sixties with the advent of the Beatles and subsequent “album rock.” However, by the early sixties Etta James had moved to Chess Records and had a string of hits that established her as one of the first R & B singers to reach a broader “mainstream” (i.e. white) audience. James’ full-throated, yet supple voice could deliver a sound that was in turns infused with lust and passion, playful raunch and soul-deep pain. The influence of James’ vocal power can be heard in the work of later artists such as Janis Joplin and Beyoncé Knowles.
Her range is exemplified by her standout recordings “All I Could Do Was Cry” (1960), “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” (1962), “I Just Want to Make Love to You” (1963), and “I’d Rather go Blind” (1967). Her signature song, the slow, smoky ballad “At Last” took on new meaning when Beyoncé performed it at President Obama’s historic inauguration in 2009. James famously complained that she hadn’t been invited to do the honors-with no small justification, given that she was still making stunning recordings well into the 2000s.
Turning his attention to civic engagement in the sixties and seventies, Johnny Otis’ involvement in progressive politics complemented his antiracist cultural practice. He began by doing community work in South Central Los Angeles, ran (unsuccessfully) for the California State Assembly, and became a member of the L.A. County Democratic Committee. He also served 10 years as deputy chief of staff for Mervyn Dymally, the first Black state senator of a western state, California’s first black lieutenant governor, and later Congressional Representative.
Otis also had a long-running music show on L.A.’s Pacifica station, KPFK.
Otis and James crossed paths again in 1994 when James inducted Otis into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. James’ 1995 autobiography, “Rage to Survive,” documented her struggles with heroin and cocaine. She was inducted in the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001
And received a Grammy lifetime achievement award 2003.
Etta James died January 20th in Riverside, California at age 73.
Photo: Etta James performing at the 2006 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Jeff Christensen/AP