Saturday, January 21, 2012

Johnny Otis and Etta James

Etta James (Jamesetta Hawkins, January 25, 1938 – January 20, 2012) was fourteen years old when she auditioned for Johnny Otis in a San Francisco Hotel.

She had written an answer song to Hank Ballard's "Work with Me, Annie" called "Roll With Me, Henry." She and her friends the Michell sisters had a girl- singer trio called the Creolettes, and the oldest, Abye, set up the audition. Johnny Otis liked what he heard, and despite the girls' ages (Jean was also fourteen, her sister Abye, 23) took them under his wing, put them on the road and produced Etta's song, retitled, "The Wallflower."

On the road in the early days

 He also changed their name to the Peaches, and Jamesetta Hawkins became Etta James, nicknamed Peaches. Johnny Otis (Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes, December 28, 1921 – January 17, 2012) was many things: vibist, drummer, arranger, songwriter, producer, talent scout, entrepreneur, bandleader, dee- jay and farmer. More, probably. The son of Greek immigrants, he grew up in Los Angeles and embraced Black culture. Much like the newspaperman and essayist Lafcadio Hearn, who after moving from New Orleans to Japan adopted the Japanese culture as his own, Johnny Otis pretty much became a black man, albeit a somewhat light- skinned one, probably darker though than Don Robey of Dallas, who really was African- American.

 Like many zealous converts, he became an uber- black man: street king, hipster par excellence. He was famous for re-molding his discoveries: JamesEtta into Etta James, Johnny Watson into "Young" John Watson (later Johnny "Guitar" Watson), Gene "the Mighty Flea" Connors, "Pee Wee" Crayton- reinventing them as he went along, because, after all, wasn't he his own greatest reinvention? He produced their records, often wrote their songs, or at least got a co- credit, and booked them on the road. If you wanted to make it as an entertainer in black Los Angeles in the late '40's to mid '50's, you had to go through a swarthy Greek. He held the keys to that Kingdom for many years, and that's how Etta James started out.

Eventually, their lives diverged. Etta James went on to sign with Leonard Chess at Chess Records, had many hit records, recorded "At Last" (introduced by Glenn Miller in a 1942 movie), the theme song of "...every graduation, wedding and big event in this country," she said when I saw her at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2006.

At a later performance, after her massive weight loss

Otis never stopped playing, never stopped putting bands together or promoting new musicians, including his talented but troubled son Shuggie. He was featured briefly in Clint Eastwood's film, "Play Misty For Me" and the album of that performance, "Live at the Monterrey Jazz Festival" helped him get back into the public eye, albeit a whiter, younger eye than before. He maintained a high level of professionalism to the end of his performing days, and gained reknown as a painter and organic farmer, ever the classic renaissance man.

Fascinating lives, hard lives, intense lives, American success stories, real American success stories (as opposed to Horatio Alger, whoever he was). Etta, frustrated and proud to the end, unhappy with the President playing Beyonce's weak version of her song at the Inaugural. Johnny Otis, playing at his son's organic market on the weekends to sell- out crowds, despite the ultimate failure of the market itself.

Both gone now within seventy- two hours of one another. Starting together and somehow finishing together, with a lot of stories in- between.

Monday, January 16, 2012

What We Lost: Blues Deaths in 2011 or The One About Hubert Sumlin

This comment was posted on the blog January 13th:
Steve M. said...
I check your blog mostly for the music stuff. Since Hubert Sumlin died, you haven't posted anything about him. will you? Thanks for all your other good posts on blues and jazz players.
January 13, 2012 2:05 PM
So true, Steve. I am remiss in not writing about Hubert Sumlin, the long- time guitarist for Howling Wolf and a favorite of mine. Thinking about Hubert started me thinking about what a devastating year 2011 was for many classic blues musicians.

A partial list:

Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards
Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards (June 18th- August 29th, 2011), a compatriot of Robert Johnson's and just about everyone else from the Mississippi Delta that ever played blues. His autobiography, The World Don't Owe Me Nothing is a fascinating book that I highly recommend.

Eddie Kirkland

Eddie Kirkland (August 16, 1923 – February 27, 2011), dead in a car accident at the age of 87. An indefatigable road warrior who must have played three hundred nights a year, year in, year out. I opened a show that Eddie headlined. He was a beautiful eccentric, with the most varied array of old solid state amps I'd ever seen, all wired together. He wore a kind of black gypsy outfit with a head scarf. He could have been a violinist in a Hungarian restaurant in Harlem. I got the impression that he could do anything, from wire a house to mesmerize an audience made up of people a third his age.

Mojo Buford on harmonica with Muddy Waters

George "Mojo" Buford (November 10, 1929 – October 11, 2011) , the harp player who could always come home again, if home was the Muddy Waters' Band. Buford played briefly with Muddy after Little Walter left, then again after James Cotton left, then again after Paul Oscher left and finally yet again when Jerry Portnoy left. While no one ever thought Buford was a great harmonica player, he was a very good one, who made a living as a solo performer in Minneapolis in- between his stints with Muddy. Simple, unadorned lines, and good timing coupled with a robust tone were the hallmarks of his playing. 
Lacy Gibson, right, with Willie Black, left, and Freddie Below, center
Lacy Gibson (May 1, 1936 – April 11, 2011) was a Chicago mainstay who never liked to travel outside the city. His jazz- influenced guitar enhanced performances by musicians as varied as Junior Wells and Sun Ra, his one- time brother- in- law. In later years Lacy and his wife Ann ran an after hours club out of their basement, and were known for the block- parties they'd put together.
Big Jack Johnson © Bill Streber
Big Jack Johnson (July 30, 1940 – March 14, 2011), a Mississippi blues mainstay died at the age of seventy, way too early. He came to prominence with the Jellyroll Kings, an electrified Delta group featuring Sam Carr on drums and Frank Frost on keyboards and harmonica. Johnson later started the Oilmen. Along with R. L. Burnside and Paul "Wine" Jones, Johnson exemplified the contemporay Delta sound.

Pinetop Perkins
Joseph William "Pinetop" Perkins (July 7th, 1913- March 21, 2011) did the impossible: he filled Otis Spann's piano spot in the Muddy Waters' Band. In the course of his twelve years with Muddy, he made folks forget Spann (or at least not miss him so much) and became one of the most beloved figures in the blues. Prior to Muddy, "Top" played with Rice Miller on KFFA, Earl Hooker, Little Milton, and Albert King among others. I asked him one time about playing with Rice Miller. "Did he have names for the songs, like 'Eyesight to the Blind', or did he just say, 'Shuffle in G?'"

"Shuffle in G," Top laughed.

In the last year of his long life he won a Grammy for a record he made with Hubert Sumlin.
He loved MacDonald's food and lived to be 97. 

Howard Tate, soul singer extraordinaire
Howard Tate (August 13, 1939 – December 2, 2011) was blessed with one of the most beautiful voices in the annals of Soul music: swooping falsettos, great mid- range tenor, incredibly passionate. In the late 1960's, he made a record so perfect, so realized that it immediately became a cult staple. If you had this record, then you knew! You just... knew.
Produced by the late Jerry Ragavoy, the record "Get It While You Can" spawned three top 20 hits and one of Janis Joplin's most memorable covers.

Tate never hit like that again.

Despite his great voice, follow- ups filled with inferior material failed to chart or even approach the greatness of that first transcendent recording. Tate turned to drugs in 1980, became homeless for a period and ultimately sought solice in the church, where, in 2001 he was rediscovered by a New Jersey disc jockey.

Numerous live performances followed, he travelled the world, made another pretty good CD with Ragavoy and a live performance DVD for the Shout Factory.

He died at the age of 72 from myeloma and leukemia.

A Young Hubert Sumlin with the Howling Wolf. Together they played history.
Hubert Sumlin (November 16, 1931 – December 4, 2011) played guitar with Howling Wolf for so many years that Wolf called Hubert his son. "I think he really thought Hubert was his son after awhile," said James Cotton.

Sumlin briefly joined Muddy Waters in 1956 after a money- related dispute with Wolf, but rejoined Wolf after getting into a fight with Muddy and Otis Spann. A deceptively sweet man, Hubert was not one to back down from a fight. He had his teeth knocked out by Wolf ("He just backhanded me and teeth went everywhere!") and dodged a motorcycle chain wielded by Otis Spann.

His beautiful guitar tone was partially the result of not using a pick. My particular favorite Sumlin break is the one on "Hidden Charms", after Wolf says, "Git it!" Hubert knocks out one of the truly great recorded guitar solos of all time! He is among a handful of blues guitarists whose sound is identifiable within one or two notes, and some of his licks, like the voicings on "Killing Floor" or the trance- like figure on "Smokestack Lightning" are among the most influential ever recorded.

After Wolf's death, Hubert began recording on his own, often with someone famous like Eric Clapton. His 2010 record with Pinetop Perkins, "Joined at the Hip" won a Grammy and he was a mainstay of Eric Clapton's Crossroads Festivals.

Much respected, much venerated, Hubert died quietly in Wayne, New Jersey of heart failure.