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.