Monday, January 23, 2012

Johnny Otis and Etta James, z''l

I was sad to read (at Stuart's blog) that both Johnny Otis and Etta James have passed away. Jimmy Castor, the less known cult legend, also died very recently. All three were "minor" artists in the sense used by Kafka in his note on "minor literature", and their passing has not been noted the way those of "great" or "major" artists. I knew several Johnny Otis songs, but I knew next to nothing about him. This Guardian obituary (h/t Jogo) captures something of how extraordinary he was. Born to Greek immigrants in Vallejo, northern California, he
one of the first white American musicians to cross the racial divide, aligning himself with the black community as a teenager and from then on regarding himself – and being treated as – a black man... His parents ran a grocery store in a black neighbourhood in Berkeley, and the teenage Otis chose to walk away from white culture. Black America, he wrote, possessed "soul", a quality he found lacking elsewhere. Having taken up the side drum in junior high school, he made his professional debut in 1939 with the West Oakland Houserockers before going on the road, playing in touring big bands
He backed Lester Young, gave Big Mama Thornton her break and thus helped invent rock 'n' roll (he produced and drummed on "Hound Dog", whose lyrics she wrote with Jewish kids Leiber and Stoller), was a politician and activist in the black community in LA, pioneered gangsta rap, and much more besides. His story says something about the way in which music always breaks out of ideas of culture as racial property.

He started Esther Phillips and Etta James, two of my favourite singers, in their careers. Here he is with Esther Phillips.

Here is Esther Phillips later, singing one of the most moving songs I know, "From a Whisper to a Scream", written by Gil Scott Heron, who of course also died this year. Phillips died aged 48; like Gil Scott Heron she was a heroin addict.

Here is Etta James, singing one of my all-time favourite songs, "I Would Rather Go Blind", a song which reminds me of the time of my life I spent more or less every Friday in the Marquis of Granby pub in New Cross, where it was on the juke box, and of the first flat I lived in with the woman I am now married to.

And another of my favourites, "Let's Burn down the cornfield".

Here is Johnny Otis with his son Shuggie, and the Scottish bluesman Roy Buchanan.

See also Soul Sides, 16 Corners, Popmatters, Sterogum, Hidden Track and 30 Days.


Stuart said...

Very nice post. However, Roy Buchanan was US-born. According to wikipedia, his professional start was with Johnny Otis, many years before the video, of course.

Mike said...

Great post. I grew up in LA and Johnny Otis was a local legend who DJ'd on 'golden oldies' radio stations well into his 80s.

bob said...

Thanks both. Stuart, don't know how I got it stuck in my head that Roy Buchanan was Scottish! He is quite clearly all-American. I see he tutored Robbie Robertson, much underrated as a guitarist. Will change.