R&B’s Etta James and Johnny Otis: Singing Life, Living Songs

Etta James and Johnny Otis

Rhythm and blues — the musical category sometimes infused with soul, jazz and rock and roll—seems like an oxymoron, as if saying “I’m so sad and depressed I wanna shake it all around with the whole dang mess of it.”

But then, the genre has always been a crossroads for all sorts of feelings and characters. It’s where the heart multitasks its pain and jubilation. It’s where Elvis Presley soaked up Beale Street. It’s where Billie Holiday brought a smoky blues to jazz. It’s where song-writers from everywhere made people get off their behinds and do everything from the glide to the hand jive to sultry, slow dancing.

It’s where the son of Greek immigrants and a woman whose life and music all but embodied a steady saunter on the dark, sad, wild side, which she turned into the most soulful of troubled blues. And somewhere in there, the two crossed paths, one discovering the other.

These two — Johnny Otis, 90, born Johnny Alexander Aliotes and sometimes called the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues,” and Etta James, 73, who translated her own trouble life of sad romance and loss into powerful blues-filled music — died within three days of each other.

Otis, a multi-tasker in his own right was a bandleader, club owner, musician and, most influentially and importantly, songwriter and talent scout. He embraced African-American musical forms with gusto. He loved jazz, rhythm and blues, the blues themselves and soul music. And he discovered James, by way of his Barrelhouse Club and Revue in the Watts section of Los Angeles when she was a teenagee, as was Esther Phillips, the dynamo jazz singer also discovered by Otis.

The life of Otis criss-crosses genres and was fueled by a strong melting-pot passion, an avid love of African-American culture as muse and part of the great American mosaic. In his times, everybody crossed his path including the great blues singer Big Mama Thornton, who did the original version of “Hound Dog,” a song which later became a part of Elvis’s early success. Last, but not least, Otis was the author of the hugely popular song “Willie and the Hand Jive.”

Etta James was now and forever known for “At Last,” the stirring, heartbreaking (when sung by James) ballad of utter love, loss and triumph, which Beyonce sang to the Obamas at one of their inaugural balls, stirring up some controversial anger on the part of James.

She needn’t have worried. Although, ironically, Beyonce played James in a dramatized account of Chess Records called “Cadillac Records,” “At Last” was her song, every last emotion-packed line and vowel. She was one of those gifted singers and musicians — Charlie Parker and Billie were others — who struggled throughout her life with various well-documented addictions. The troubles — money, drugs, lovers and husbands — draped all over music, she brought, like Billie, the blues to jazz and added her own voice and style.

Born Jamasetta Hawkins, she met Otis as a teen in the 1960s. He guided her career for a number of years and also dubbed her Etta. Back then she wrote “Roll With Me Henry,” a raccous, sensual song, somewhat later, became “Dance With Me Henry,” a sanitized hit for Georgia Gibbs — because “roll” connoted sexual activity.

By all accounts, James was one-of-a-kind on stage: dynamic, dramatic, raunchy, powerful and moving. It’s the kind of concert stuff from which legends are built.

She told one reporter that when she sang the blues, she sang life. Her life, to be sure, but that’s what all the great blues and jazz singers and musicians do: singing life, living songs.

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