Johnny Otis and Etta James were joined in life and now only a few days
apart they are together in death. Otis, 90, of Greek ancestry but by
choice black and who discovered James, died last Tuesday, Jan. 17 in
Los Angeles. James, 73, whose recording of “At Last” brought her
everlasting fame, died on Friday, Jan. 20 in Riverside, California,
after suffering with leukemia.
Both were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; James in 1993 and Otis in 1994. And both changed their names. James first met Otis when she was singing with the Creolettes and arranged a meeting with him in 1952 in San Francisco at his hotel room to audition. But James refused to sing on command unless she could do it from the bathroom, which she felt would enhance her voice. “We decided to do our jazz harmony numbers, the ones that really showed off our voices,” James told David Ritz, who helped her write her memoir Rage to Survive. “We sang ‘How Deep Is the Ocean,’ ‘Street of Dreams,’ and ‘For All We Know.’ When we were through, total silence. Finally, Johnny Otis said, ‘Wow, did you hear that little girl sing?’”
Otis was so impressed that he asked them to ride back with him to Los Angeles to be on his show and to make some records. When Otis asked James how old she was she lied and told him she was eighteen.
“At fourteen, my childhood had ended,” she said. And it was the beginning of a fruitful relationship between Otis and James. Three years later he wrote “Roll With Me Henry” or “Dance With Me Henry,” the female response to Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me Annie,” though, because of the sexually-charged lyrics, was officially known as “The Wallflower.” It soared to the top of the R&B charts in 1955.
In 1958, Otis hit it big again with “Willie and the Hand Jive,” a re working of Bo Diddley’s hit with a similar catching rhythm and blues number derived from a popular children’s rhyme “a shave-and-a-haircut, two bits.”
Otis was born John Veliotes in Vallejo, just northeast of San Francisco and raised in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Berkeley, where his father owned a grocery store. As a musician, he was at first a drummer and good enough to become a member of Harlan Leonard’s Kansas City Rockers, a southwest territory band that was a mainstay in the 1920s on the thriving jazz scene on L.A.’s Central Avenue.
When the jazz scene experienced terrible economic conditions the big bands were forced to reduce their size to small combos and this was to the advantage of the emerging rhythm and blues groups exemplified by Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five. Otis was ready for the change, too and in 1946 his ballad “Harlem Nocturne” was a national favorite.
In the fifties, Otis was often on the lookout for talented singers and once while judging a contest in Detroit discovered such future stars as Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Little Willie John. They were often wedded to his songs such as “So Fine,” and “All Nite Long.” A versatile musician, he’s on piano on Johnny Ace’s immortal “Pledging My Love,” which Otis also produced.
The invasion of rockers from Great Britain, in Otis’s estimation, put an end to a lucrative era of music and homegrown musicians, particularly the early rock and rollers and blues people, watched as the songs they created were coveted and covered by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, et al, all the way to the bank.
But all wasn’t lost in the sixties because James had her trademark hit “At Last” in 1961. “I’d Rather Go Blind” was another song that bore her inimitable style and passion, which she co-wrote but is rarely given credit.
James’s talent evolved out of the church where at the tender age of six she was already in the spotlight in the church’s choir at St. Paul Baptist in Los Angeles.
When her foster parents died James (born Jamestta Hawkins) was reunited with her mother, who told her that her father was the legendary pool player Minnesota Fats.
Always considered among the most audacious blues divas, despite an enduring battle with drug addiction, James was back in the news when the movie “Cadillac Records” was released in 2008 with Beyonce reprising her songs and again when she was apparently rebuked by the White House in favor of Beyonce to sing “At Last” while the president and the first lady danced at the inaugural ceremony.
Otis and James accumulated an exhaustive list of awards, much too numerous to begin enumerating here, but they shared a precious moment in 1994 when James presented Otis during his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was perhaps proper and fitting that the discoverer was presented by the star he discovered.
Photo credit: Johnny Foliot