They died within two days of each other -- Ioannis Alexandros Veliotes aka “Johnny Otis” and Jamesetta Hawkins aka “Etta James” – and it got me to thinking about how music connects even the most disparate of souls and smooths over some of the roughest of roads. So we dug around the JMP archives and the web to find some choice files to get your blood rollin’ and your hands jivin’ in honor of two musical giants linked in life, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame one year apart (Etta in ’93, Johnny in ’94) and now inextricably connected in whatever comes hereafter. Here’s a sweet blog, “Etta James and Johnny Otis: The End of a Great R&B Song” , by New York Magazine’s Mark Jacobsen that does a fine job of describing their bond:
“It is a rough day for the rhythm, a bad day for the blues when the 73-year-old Etta James and 90(!)-year-old Johnny Otis die within 48 hours of each other. Still, like the internal logic that imbues all good songs, it figures, since Otis, avatar of "Willie and the Hand Jive," discovered the then-14 year-old Jamesetta Hawkins in a San Francisco hotel room more than 60 years ago. A man with an eye for a hot mama ready to rip it up, it didn't take Otis but a minute to put Etta on the road with his “Hand Jive” revue, singing kind of dirty songs like ‘Roll With Me, Henry,’ which was changed to ‘Dance With Me, Henry’ to get it on the radio. “Maybe it was that taste for the netherworld clubland that kept Etta James from crossing over to the mass market despite possessing a set of pipes to power a whole Rust Belt city. (Otis always went his own way, played a million one-night stands, and often recorded under the name Snatch and the Poontangs.)
"She wasn't churchy like Aretha, she wasn't silky like Sarah Vaughn, she wasn't skinny like Diana Ross, but of all the great female R&B singers to come of age after the rise of rock and roll, Etta James was the most street. She shot dope, got arrested for writing bad checks and forging scripts, claimed to be pool player Minnesota Fats' illegitimate daughter, and blew up to 400 pounds. Plus, she scared the shit out of you. There were few forces on earth to put the fear of God into a young boy surreptitiously listening to a transistor radio after bedtime than Etta James roaring, ‘Tell Mama ... all about it!’ ”
And from a thoughtful Jazztimes piece on what they both meant to the LA music community by Ed Hamilton: “Etta James said about her mentor Johnny Otis, 'I dig how Johnny Otis reinvented himself as a Blackman -- his soul was blacker than the blackest black in Compton. People took his Greek shading as Creole, but Johnny took it even further, he viewed the world especially the musical world through black eyes.' Otis gave up his Greek heritage as Veliotes to adopt the culture of blacks ... "Otis said about his discovery, 'I knew instantly when I heard Etta sing in a bathroom audition that she would be a star.” He saluted Etta's artistry as the apex of achievement in singing.” Speaking of salutes and artistry, more than any words I could crank out, the following videos do a much better job of conveying how wonderful and full of life these two great artists truly were. And a special thanks to the tireless Dan Sullivan and Amelia Davis for all the research help! Etta James and her classic “At Last” ... eat your heart out Beyonce. Johnny Otis and "friends" perform "Willie and the Hand Jive" in 1958.