An Appreciation: Etta James and Johnny Otis

By Devon Wendell

This has indeed been a sad week in the world of music with the loss of two giants in the world of r&b, blues, jazz, gospel, and rock ‘n’ roll.

The first, Johnny Otis, r & b pioneer, bandleader, talent scout, drummer, and composer, whose imagination would help transform hit-sculpted r&b into rock ‘n’ roll. Otis passed away at his home in Los Angeles this last Tuesday, January 17th, 2012.  Otis was 90.

JOhnny Otis

Otis, the son of two Greek immigrants,  was born in Vallejo, California on December 28th, 1921.  From an early age he knew how to incorporate everything that was going on around him and turn it into a cohesive package that everyone could understand.  This is evident on his 1958 hit “Willie And The Hand Jive,” in which we hear jump blues, soul, jazz, all in a way that was funky, familiar, and new.

Among Otis’s discoveries were Jackie Wilson, Johnny Ace, Little Richard, Hank Ballard, and Esther Philips. Otis felt that the most prolific changes in music were happening in the African American communities, which he spoke of openly.

It was evident that Otis had his pulse on the future. He knew what young people wanted before they did. A prime example of that was a tune he penned in 1946 called “Harlem Nocturne,” that was later recorded and made a hit by The Viscounts in 1960 as rock music was blooming.

The Bo Diddley beat was honed and crafted by Otis’s producing skills as he wrote many variations of Diddley’s break out hit in 1955, “Bo Diddley.”

More evidence of the fact Otis had a golden ear was apparent in his most powerfully soulful discovery, Etta James, who passed away Friday, Jan. 20, 2012 — music’s second great loss this week.  She was 73 years young and died of complications of leukemia.

Etta James

If B.B. King is the reigning King Of The Blues, there’s no doubt that Etta was the music’s queen.  James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles on January 25th, 1938.

It was Johnny Otis who wrote James’s first hit, “The Wallflower,” aka “Roll With Me Henry,” in 1955.  This tunes exemplified James’s feminine power as it was written as a punchback, female response to Otis’s overtly misogynist hit “Work With Me Annie” for Hank Ballard.

Etta came out swinging and wasn’t going to take any prisoners on her journey.

She could take a song that may have sounded like a saccharine ballad — like Glenn Miller’s “At Last” — and inject it with rawness, sensuality, and vulnerability rarely heard on records when she made it a hit in 1961.

James became a part of Chess records, a roster that was dominated by such figures of blues male machismo as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Buddy Guy, and Chuck Berry.  Her dark, sassy voice and bad assed attitude on classics “I’d Rather Go Blind,” “Tell Mama,” and “All I Could Do Was Cry” were powerful enough to give Muddy and Wolf a few left hooks that they felt hard.

James could take anything from pop, soul, blues, jazz, and rock, and make it her own.

Her renditions of Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want To Make Love To You,” The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” and even  a take of Guns n’ Roses’ “Welcome To The Jungle,” from her last album ever – The Dreamer — were independent forces of nature on their own.

Every nuance reflected her struggles and pain. Only Etta could do that. She took us there, long before any biographies were written. One note and we knew but loved her all the more.

James won four Grammy awards and a lifetime achievement award in 2003 but her music was above all of that pomp and circumstance.

With Johnny Otis and Etta James passing in the same week, we not only reflect on their amazing legacies but we truly feel the huge gap in the musical world today.

These two giants are irreplaceable.

Etta James photo by Tony Gieske.

3 thoughts on “An Appreciation: Etta James and Johnny Otis

  1. So true, was lucky enough to hear them both.& meet them. I love that the history of Jazz &Blues continued with&through them to keep Music evolving. My heritage is intact so is the rest of Americas music from these legends.
    @oryskid. Twitter


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