Saturday, January 21, 2012

Johnny Otis and Etta James R.I.P.

Two pioneers of rhythm and blues have died: Johnny Otis and Etta James. I started to discover them in the early 1970s, which was a good period for teenagers to find out the "golden oldies" of the 1950s. Charlie Gillett's The Sound of the City became one of my favourite books (and it still is).

"Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes (December 28, 1921 – January 17, 2012), better known as Johnny Otis, was an American singer, musician, talent scout, disc jockey, composer, arranger, recording artist, record producer, vibraphonist, drummer, percussionist, bandleader, impresario and pastor. Born in Vallejo, California, he is commonly referred to as the "Godfather of Rhythm and Blues"." (The English Wikipedia)

"Etta James (born Jamesetta Hawkins; January 25, 1938 – January 20, 2012) was an American singer whose style spanned a variety of music genres including blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul, gospel and jazz. Starting her career in the mid 1950s, she gained fame with hits such as "Dance With Me, Henry", "At Last", "Tell Mama", and "I'd Rather Go Blind" for which she claimed she wrote the lyrics. She faced a number of personal problems including drug addiction before making a musical resurgence in the late 1980s with the album, The Seven Year Itch." (The English Wikipedia).

Johnny Otis was the one who encouraged and helped the 14-year-old Etta James launch her professional singing career. "Roll With Me Henry" (1955, renamed "Dance With Me Henry" for self-censorship reasons) was Etta James's humoristic breakthrough song, an answer to the hit song "Work With Me Annie" by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. There were several "sequels", such as "Annie Had A Baby (Can't Work No More)" and "Henry's Got Flat Feet (Can't Dance No More)".

Johnny Otis was the producer of Big Mama Thornton's original recording of "Hound Dog", and his pioneering career was amazing during several decades. Born of Greek parents, "Otis was well-known for his choice to live his professional and personal life as a member of the African-American community. He has written, 'As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black.'" (The English Wikipedia).

A Johnny Otis favourite of mine: "Every Beat Of My Heart", classic performances by The Royals and Gladys Knight & The Pips. His feelgood shuffle "Willie And The Hand Jive" became a part of Eric Clapton's repertory.

An Etta James favourite of mine is "I'd Rather Go Blind", particularly deeply felt.

Johnny Otis and Etta James were creators, inventors, interpreters and inspirers for new ways of expression. I have spent this morning listening to their music.

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