Etta James & Johnny Otis: A Mutually Musical Matrimony

Ed Hamilton on the legacy of the late singers and performers with close lifelong ties

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.

Etta and Johnny both died in the same week, January 16 and January 20 .

Johnny was a star maker, promoter, musician, producer, writer...He took Earl Hagen’s “Harlem Nocturne” and recorded it in 1946 making it a hit...He later used it to intro and close his radio show..It was even used on tv’s “Mike Hammer" as a theme. Jazz was his initial vanguard along with Blues...He was a drummer, vibist, and pianist. He played with Ben Webster, Lester Young, Gerald Wilson, Howard McGee, Teddy Edwards, Plas Johnson, Jackie Kelso, Buddy Collette. He discovered Etta, Esther Phillips, Little Willie John, Jackie Wilson, Barbara Morrison, and Big Momma Thornton, and Johnny Guitar Watson....He wrote or co-wrote “Hound Dog”, “Roll With Me Henry”, “So Fine”, “Willie and the Hand Jive”, “Fever”, and used arrangements of Count Basie for his band.. And once interviewed Art Blakey for his band but felt his bebop drumming would be wasted playing blues. Plas Johnson, famous for his “Pink Panther” sax intro was persuaded by Johnny to play piccolo and sound like a bird on Bobby Day’s million seller “Rockin' Robin”. Johnny produced Lowell Fulsome’s “Tramp” and T-bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday Blues”.

Etta was Johnny’s most important discovery in 1954 in San Francisco when she was 14 years old and named Jamesetta Rodgers.

It was 1954 in Cleveland and I was riding in the back of a pickup full of 10 ,11 and 12 year olds on their way to the Cleveland Zoo and we were all listening to the radio and singing “Roll With Me Henry” ...Etta James’ R&B national hit written by Johnny Otis.

Etta was 14 years old when this hit was recorded and produced by Otis..Just recently after a tv interview she stated she had recorded her last album and was terminally ill--- dying from Leukemia.

Now it was 1958 and I and my family had moved to Compton and on my way to Willowbrook Jr. High, I would walk pass this house and hear and see this man practicing on his tenor, not knowing until one of my buddies told me---he was in the Johnny Otis Band. On the radio and on tv was Johnny Otis with his Jazz, R&B, and Gospel troupe of entertainers. Etta described his radio voice, “Johnny’s got that deep molasses honey-dripping deejay voice--It’s a jive time jazzman’s voice..but it’s also sincere and filled with wisdom..He used his voice to generate enthusiasm for Black music and Black culture”. Johnny’s programs sometimes included Lester Young and Ben Webster and Gerald Wilson. He had earlier recorded Earl Hagen’s “Harlem Nocturne”, made it famous and it became his theme song. What was ironic was that I had just left Cleveland and on WJMO, the black radio station, was another white dj moon lighting on the black station as “Moondog”---it was Allan Freed. He also had a daytime tv program but never let on that he was moonlighting on the black station as “MoodDog” I wrote him a letter to his tv show and asked him (was he Moondog?), saying I had recognized his voice. He owned up to it on tv that indeed he was Moodog. Yet everyone in LA listening and watching Johnny’s tv show knew he was both the same guy on radio and tv, but they didn’t know he was white--they thought he was Creole. He had straight black hair, was light- bright and looking damn near white. His competition was another white guy-- -Ole HH-Hunter Hancock, but everyone knew he was white because he would put on record hops that were dances and he would bring groups and local talent to perform at Jordan High (Mingus and Buddy Collette’s alma mater); Fremont High (Billy Higgins alma mater) and Jeff. Jeff was the high school for all the super jazz musicians:Dexter, Eric Dolphy, Melba Liston, Roy Ayers, Curtis Amy, Art and Addison Farmer, and Richard Berry who sang Henry’s part with Etta. Art Laboe and Dick Hugg were latino deejays who also represented on air playing R&B Johnny made it possible for them too.

Everyone knows Etta for her 1960’s album “Trust In Me’” with the forever love song---”At Last”. She last performed at the Hollywood Bowl in 2009 and when she was introduced everyone in the audience was saying where was she? They heard her singing but on stage was this svelte, slim blond beauty---It was Etta---she had had the stomach by-pass reduction. The year before, she had rolled out on stage in a golf cart weighing nearly 400 lbs. She was extremely heavy...and as usual--- sang as she had always in concerts...with her Stone Canyon band featuring both sons Donto and Sametto on drums and guitar. I had met them when they were in junior high..Etta and I were working on a Diana Ross special and I got to reflect back on her career.

She sang all forms of music but her forte was Jazz and R&B. Most recently her Jazz album was produced by Cedar Walton and John Clayton “Time After Time” with Red Holloway and George Bohannon..

In explaining his role as Etta’s mentor and producer, Johnny said about her, “I heard the raw talent she possessed before she had developed.”

Johnny was writing songs at a time of the “cover” --- white artists recording and singing songs that had been written, recorded and sung by blacks. Ray Wood owner of Dot Records started the movement first recording Pat Boone's cover of LIttle Richard's “Tutti Fruitti”. Richard Berrry lost his rights to the Kingsmen who recorded his “Louie Louie”..Little Willie John’s “Fever was covered by Peggy Lee; Georgia Gibbs covered Etta’s “Roll with me Henry” calling it “The Wallflower”; and Leiber and Stoller stole “Hound Dog” from Johnny and Big Momma Thornton and gave it to Elvis to cover...Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie” was covered by the Kingsmen who also stole the rights. But of course the royalties were lucrative for them.

Etta and Johnny were both inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame one year apart--Etta in 1993 and Johnny in 1994..Etta said in her autobiography...describing Johnny, “he’s much more than a promoter and musician; as a guru, a man with encyclopedic knowledge and appreciation of Black music. I’ve expressed appreciation of his many talents and his influence on my career, but also admiring his personal decisions.”

L.A. mourns the loss of the man who spread R&B, Blues, Jazz and Gospel Sounds of LA and the Lady who sang those Sounds of Jazz, R&B, and Blues all throughout L.A. from Watts to Compton. And for many years these sounds were confined to the Central Avenue scene forbidden to be spread to the westward parts of segregated L.A... Johnny Otis made it happen with his vehicles of radio, tv and live shows.

Years ago, Los Angeles was a major center for club entertainment, and many recording stars were seen even before they were recorded. The clubs are long gone, but not forgotten--- they are the history of the L. A. Sound that could be experienced up close and in person.

When there was no Westside for Blacks, there was the Eastside and Central Avenue; with the Club Alabam and The Plantation and of course, all those entertainers as Bill Robinson, Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington,Lowell Fulsome, T-Bone Walker,Sarah Vaughn, Gerald Wilson, Howard McGhee, Teddy Edwards, all stayed at the Dunbar Hotel owned by the family of Celes King... And Watts was really what was happening with Mr. Johnny Otis running his club The Barrelhouse that showcased his review that included Etta James, Little Esther Phillips, Arthur Adams, Johnny Guitar Watson, Trudy Williams and the Sixteens, Big J. McNeely and Little Sonny, Bobby Day, Larry Williams, Jennelle Hawkins, Big Momma Thornton, The Sharps, Olympics, Rivingtons, Meadowlarks, ZZ Hill, Richard Berry, 5 Satins, Penguins, Eugene Church, The Coasters, Vernon Green & the Medallions, and Mel Williams.

When the “covenant laws” were done away (unwritten real estate laws preventing selling to blacks), and moving West became the thing, Broadway and Western avenues had the swing of things: The 5/4 Ballroom, Marty’s, The Brass Rail, Zebra Lounge, Memory Lane, The Sands, Club Sahara, California Club, Caribbean Lounge, Pied Piper, Adams West, Parisian Room, It Club, The Tiki, The Casbah, Dooto's, Dick Barnett’s Guys & Dolls.. They were hot almost every night and you could choose who you wanted to see on any given night: Jesse Belvin, Sam Fletcher, Ocie Smith, Johnny Ace, Lorez Alexandria, Ernie Andrews, Barbara Morrison, the Jazz Crusaders, Les McCann, Nancy Wilson, and into Hermosa Beach to the Lighthouse and to Hollywood to the Renaissance, Mr. Con Ton’s, and the Purple Onion. Radio stations were hot then and L.A. had only three AM stations and they were scorching with R&B: KGFJ and KDAY. They were the voices of South Los Angeles. For the cool and hip there was the new FM sound of KBCA programming Jazz and later KTYM, and KAGB (KACE). The voices or Disc Jockeys were widely known for not only their programming but for going into the community holding dances and concerts for everyone. Johnny Otis and Larry McCormick “Mr. Mack and his Record Rack, Huntin' with Hunter Hancock and Margie Hendricks, Herman Griffin, Bob Decoy, Johnny Magnus, Roscoe, and The Magnificent Montague the life blood of KGFJ. Hunter would every week have a hop at Fremont, Jeff hi or Jordan’s MultiPurpose Room--- this was his favorite place; and Mr. Mack would have a thousand giveaways on his midmorning show for years..he was Mr. Versatile Voice--he went to KFWB and really made it their motto “Color 98”; he then went to and help launch KDAY with popular Lonnie Roshon.
Albert D. Stevenson the voice of Stevo, Jai Rich, Rick Holmes, Tollie Strode,Les Carter, and Jim Gosa, Tommie B and Chuck Niles, and Sam Fields smoothed the Jazz Air on KBCA. Stevo was personable, suave, hip, and his voice--- debonaire; he later went to KTYM and had a show for 7 hours on saturdays for years. The jocks moved listeners with the music they played and ran everyone out to buy from these famous record stores: Dolphins of Hollywood, Flash, Sam’s, Crains, and Conleys.

You could hear these songs every night: “In The Still of the Night”, “Earth Angel”, “A Casual Look”, “Gigalene”,”Western Movies”, “There Is Something on Your Mind”, “Willie and the Hand Jive”, “Cuttin' In”, “Gangster of Love”, “Pretty Girls Everywhere”, “Louie Louie”, “Little Green Apples”, “Charlie Brown”, “Rockin' Robin”, “Dance With Me Henry”, “Poppa Ooh Mau Mau”, “Moments To Remember”. And not forgetting Miles’ “All Blues”.

Comedians had their sounds in L.A. with Redd Foxx, Renaldo Ray, Leroy and Skillet & Lawanda,; Slappy White with the foxiest female impersonator in the world--- Sir Lady Java and Ms. Dakota.

Today L.A. Sounds are rare air with one Jazz club, an R&B Townhouse, La Louisianne and two new restaurants “Pips” and “Maverick’s Flat”.

Large venues like Club Nokia, Hollywood and Highland, and the Hollywood Bowl now control the Jazz, R&B, Blues with their concerts...L.A. is a barren land mass for clubbing and seeing and listening to the good sounds; but once upon a time it was going on in L.A.. Johnny Otis made it possible for all those who followed in his footsteps...He was a pioneer and engineered all the musical avenues in L.A..

Johnny Otis and Etta James have left a tremendous void in this city of L.A., but what they left is something no one else will ever duplicate---effervescence within the music they wrote, sang, produced and recorded that will always remain on the airwaves around L.A. and around the world where once they performed before thousands; check out Clint Eastwood’s “Play Misty For Me’ with the Monterey Jazz Festival performance of Johnny Otis’ Revue and Etta James’ “At Last” and last jazz recording-”Time After Time”...these performances will withstand the test of time---they’re timeless as are the memories of Etta James and Johnny Otis who had between them---A “Mutually Musical Matrimony”. Give a listen to Avicii and Flo Rida’s collaboration with Etta on “A Good Feelin’”, a take off of “Somethin’s Got A Hold On Me” and the Kohler handle commercial using Johnny’s “Willie And the Hand Jive”....I still hear his radio and tv intro---”Johnny Otis, Johnny Otis--bop bop bop.... de bop bop...and Harlem Nocturne’s swinging bluesy pathos......

Johnny Otis’s last show was staged in Downtown L.A.’s “Streetscene”, (1985) and he had for the last time performing Willie Mae “Big Momma” Thorton and Barbara Morrison who is still here...Long live Johnny Otis and his sculptured, masterful- vocal work of art---Ms. Etta James.

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Ed Hamilton