On Friday January 20th Etta James died at the age of 73, from complications from leukaemia. She was also suffering with dementia and hepatitis C. The equally legendary Johnny Otis, the “Godfather of rhythm and blues” – and the man who discovered Etta James – died just four days before. He was 90 years old. Johnny, who wrote and recorded the R&B classic “Willie and the Hand Jive”, was white, and grew up in a black section of Berkeley, in the San Francisco Bay Area. . He changed his name because “it sounded more black“.
Otis was leading his own band in 1945 when he scored his first big hit, “Harlem Nocturne.” In 1950, 10 of his songs made Billboard Magazine’s R&B chart. His “Willie and the Hand Jive” sold more than 1.5 million copies and was covered years later by Eric Clapton. He later wrote “Every Beat of My Heart,” which was a hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips.
However, Johnny was blessed with the ability to recognize talent. As well as Etta James, Johnny discovered Hank Ballard, The Coasters, and Big Mama Thornton, whose original recording of “Hound Dog” later became a huge hit for Elvis.
Johnny Otis found the 15-year-old Etta James singing on San Francisco street corners with a couple of girlfriends in the early 1950s. Johnny told Etta to get her mother’s permission to accompany him to Los Angeles to make a recording. Instead, Etta went home and forged her mother’s name on a note claiming she was 18.
Etta initially toured with Otis’ revue, but in 1959, when she signed with the Chess label, with many successful releases following. She scored her first hit when she was just a teenager with “The Wallflower”, but it was her remake of a 1941 standard “At Last” that started the legend. President Barack Obama and the first lady danced to a version of “At Last” performed by Beyonce (much to Etta’s annoyance…) at his inauguration ball.
In 1967, she cut one of the most highly regarded soul albums of all time, “Tell Mama”
Sadly she was addicted to heroin from 1960 for over 20 years.
However, in 1984, she was asked to sing the national anthem at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and her career got the boost it needed, though she got hooked on painkillers in the late 1980s. She also struggled with her weight, and often performed from a wheelchair as she got older and heavier. In the early 2000s, she had weight-loss surgery and shed over 14 stone!!!!!
In October 2011, Etta retired from recording. A final studio recording, “The Dreamer,” was released, with the singer taking on classic songs – from Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Dreamer” to Guns N’ Roses “Welcome To the Jungle” – and still rocking, a fitting end to her career.
Sadly, just after this Etta’s health was such that she was being cared for at home by a personal doctor, as she needed help with basic tasks, such as feeding, dressing and hygiene.
In later years her original mentor, Johnny Otis, toured with his sons Shuggie and Nicky, and also had a regular show playing records on the Pacifica Radio Network’s stations until failing health prompted him to retire in 2005.
Etta, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, died in hospital, with her husband and sons at her side.
Johnny Otis died at his home on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where he is survived by his wife and sons.
Just watch the following for a real treat…. Etta performs the DEFINITIVE version of “I Would Rather Go Blind”…
R.I.P., Etta and Johnny….
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