Two big names in music history — Johnny Otis and Etta James — who had worked with each other — both died this week. Each had a big influence on rock ‘n’ roll.
The multi-talented Johnny Otis died Thursday at his home in Altadena, CA., at age 90. Born in Vallejo, CA., on Dec. 21, 1921, he started as a drummer with Count Otis Matthew’s West Oakland House Rockers.
He relocated to Los Angeles to join Harlan Leonard’s Kansas City Rockets at the suggestion of Nat King Cole and Jimmy Witherspoon.
In 1948, he opened the first nightclub to feature solely rhythm and blues. In 1950, he score 10 top 10 songs on Billboard’s R&B list. He became a disc jockey and hosted “The Johnny Otis Show” on television for eight years. He discovered a long list of R&B singers.
In the ’60s, he moved into government serving as long-running deputy chief of staff for Mervyn Dymally, who started as a state assemblyman and worked his way up to the state senate, lieutenant governor and congressman for California. He was also the author of books on music, politics, art and cooking.
The songs he wrote were classics. His tunes included “Every Beat of My Heart” (originally for Jackie Wilson, it was later recorded by Gladys Knight), “So Fine” and “Willie and the Hand Jive,” which had a seminal beat that was a foundation of rock ‘n’ roll.
He’s a member of the R&B Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
Etta James, who died Friday, would have been 74 on Jan. 25. Born in Los Angeles, she began singing in churches in Los Angeles. At 12, she moved to San Francisco. She started her singing career as a young teenager in a doo-wop group. She soon met bandleader Johnny Otis, who helped get her a record contract. He also got her to change her name from Jamesetta Hawkins to, reversing her first name, Etta James.
Perhaps best known for the soaring “At Last,” she also sang “I’d Rather Go Blind” (later covered by Rod Stewart) and “Tell Mama” (covered by Savoy Brown). Her lengthy recording career included 12 years with Chess Records.
As with Otis, she is also a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame. Both her recordings of “At Last” and “Don’t Go To Strangers” are also in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Paul McCartney guitarist Brian Ray worked in her band before joining up with McCartney.
Recording Academy CEO Neil Portnow issued this statement on James’ passing, “Three-time Grammy winner and Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Etta James leaves behind a dynamic legacy spanning six decades. Her music knew no boundaries as she explored diverse genres including blues, soul, R&B, rock and roll, gospel and jazz. She will forever be remembered for her timeless ballad “At Last,” and a powerful voice that will echo around the world for generations to come. We extend our deepest sympathies to her family, friends, fans and all who have been stirred by her soulful songs and passion for music.”