Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 January, 2012, 12:00am


Two true giants of R&B died in the past two weeks - Johnny Otis on January 17 at the relatively ripe old age of 90, and his protegee, Etta James, on January 20.

James checked out somewhat prematurely, just five days shy of her 74th birthday, although given her history of substance abuse, it's miraculous that she lasted that long. She was nothing if not a fighter, though, and had been battling Alzheimer's disease for two years. About a year ago, she was also diagnosed with leukaemia.

In the face of those afflictions, she still found the strength to bring her career to a conclusion on her own terms, recording one final album, The Dreamer, released in November last year. It is, astonishingly, one of her best.

She never knew for sure who her father was, but looked mixed race and believed she was the daughter of the pool player Rudolf Wanderone, better known as Minnesota Fats. When they met, however, he would not confirm that.

Otis also looked mixed race, and liked to be thought of as black, but actually got his swarthy appearance from his Mediterranean bloodline. His parents were Greek immigrants, but he grew up in a predominantly black area of the city of Vallejo, California, and from an early age identified with the culture and in particular with jazz and blues.

Otis left the music business in 2005 when ill health compelled him to put an end to his last steady gig as a radio presenter, but he left an indelible mark on it.

As a talent scout in the early days of rock 'n' roll, he was directly responsible for starting or greatly advancing the professional careers of not just James, but also Hank Ballard, Little Richard, Big Mama Thornton, and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Also a band leader and multiple instrumentalist, Otis had his own run of hits starting in the 'big band' era with a 1945 version of Earle Hagen and Dick Rogers' Harlem Nocturne, and extended into rhythm and blues with Double Crossing Blues; Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me; Willie and the Hand Jive; Crazy Country Hop and more.

Every Beat of My Heart, which he wrote and recorded with The Royals in 1954, was not a major hit, but seven years later the song gave Gladys Knight and the Pips their first entry in the Billboard top 10, and a No 1 on the R&B chart.

James was indebted to Otis for both her first big break and her stage name. She was born Jamesetta Hawkins, and Otis thought Etta James would be more memorable. He arranged her first record deal, and along with Ballard and James herself co-wrote her first hit, The Wallflower, now better known as Roll With Me, Henry.

During a long and erratic career, she chalked up many more hits, of which arguably the most notable are her signature tune, At Last!, and I'd Rather Go Blind, to the second of which she probably wrote the lyrics, although she allowed the credit to go to her lover at the time, Billy Foster - a decision she later came to regret.

James greatly admired Billie Holiday, and although she turned out to be a good deal more resilient, she had the same weakness for drugs and alcohol. That, and the exploitative nature of the music business, produced records and live performances of erratic quality, but at her best she was magnificent and perhaps the greatest blueswoman of her generation.

Otis met her when she was just 17, and even then he recalled her as 'a bolt of lightning, a thunderstorm, a tornado. She had the energy and she had the feeling'.

She never lost either one, but without Otis, we might never have had the music she left us. RIP to them both.

Take Three

Three CDs representing the best of Etta James.

At Last! (Argo, 1961): her debut album features a well-chosen mixture of jazz, blues and pop - a formula to which, with occasional updates, she stuck for the rest of her career. The title track was not a major hit at the time, but kept coming back for more. Now re-released on CD by MCA, At Last! originally came out on Argo, a subsidiary of Chess Records, whose heavily fictionalised story was retold in the awful 2008 movie Cadillac Records, in which Beyonce Knowles played James. Barack Obama hit the first bum note of his presidency by inviting Knowles, rather than James, to sing At Last! at the ball held on his inauguration night.

Tell Mama (Cadet, 1968): backed by the peerless Muscle Shoals house band of the late 1960s, James delivers some of her most soulful performances. This also has been re-released by MCA, and features the original, and definitive, version of I'd Rather Go Blind.

The Dreamer (Verve Forecast, 2011): she went out the way she wanted to - swinging - on a record with a good dose of New Orleans funk. From the first notes of Groove Me, this is James on vintage form, singing with both passion and her trademark sassiness.