January 2012, Week 3


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Etta James Obituary

    Blues and soul singer with a raw, emotional
    vocal style

By Garth Cartwright
Guardian (UK)
January 20, 2012



     Etta James's approach to singing and to life was
     one of wild, desperate engagement.

Etta James, who has died aged 73 after suffering from
leukaemia, was among the most critically acclaimed and
influential female singers of the past 50 years, even
if she never achieved huge popular success. From her
first R&B hit, in 1955, the risque Roll With Me Henry -
cut when she was only 15 - through a series of classic
1960s soul sides (the lush ballad At Last, the raucous
house rocker Tell Mama and the emotional agony of I'd
Rather Go Blind), then a series of critically acclaimed
1970s and 1980s albums that won her a broad rock
audience, to more recent albums of jazz vocals, James
proved capable of developing and changing as an artist.

Her approach to both singing and life was throughout
one of wild, often desperate engagement that included
violence, drug addiction, armed robbery and highly
capricious behaviour. James sang with unmatched
emotional hunger and a pain that can chill the
listener. The ferocity of her voice documents a
neglected child, a woman constantly entering into bad
relationships and an artist raging against an industry
and a society that had routinely discriminated against

James's continuing appeal to new generations was proved
when the R&B superstar Beyonce played James in the 2008
film Cadillac Records. The British pop singer Adele
said that it was buying an Etta James CD when she was
13 that made her want to sing.

She was born Jamesetta Hawkins to 14-year-old Dorothy
Hawkins and an unknown white father, although James
maintained he was the pool shark Rudolf "Minnesota
Fats" Wanderone, and was raised at first in Los Angeles
by adoptive parents. From the age of five, she sang
gospel in the local church and later acknowledged the
influence of the choirmaster, Professor James Earl

When Jamesetta's adoptive mother died, Dorothy
reappeared and took her 12-year-old daughter to San
Francisco. Dorothy was a hustler and showed no
inclination to change her lifestyle. "She was never
there when I got off from school," James recalled, "so
I could pretty much do what I wanted to do . drinking,
smoking weed." Violence and substance abuse were now
constants in James's life and she would maintain a
difficult, combative relationship with her mother
across many decades.

James formed a vocal trio, the Creolettes, with two
teenage friends. They auditioned for the maverick R&B
band leader Johnny Otis. He was so impressed with
James's voice and her songwriting skills that he
offered to take her to Los Angeles the following day to
record Roll With Me Henry. She agreed, lied to him that
she was 18 and, when he demanded her mother's signed
consent, went home and forged it - Dorothy was then in

Roll With Me Henry was retitled The Wallflower - Modern
Records decided the original title was too explicit -
and Otis renamed his protege Etta James. The song
reached No 1 on the R&B charts (while Georgia Gibbs's
bland cover went to No 1 in the pop charts). The
follow-up, Good Rockin' Daddy, reached No 12 in the R&B
charts in November 1955.

As a teenager on tours with Otis, Johnny "Guitar"
Watson, Ike and Tina Turner and Little Richard, James
encountered and quickly embraced much debauchery.
Although there were no more 50s hits, she was a popular
attraction in black America's working-class "chitlin'
circuit" clubs.

In 1959 James signed with the Chicago blues label
Chess, which began marketing her as the "Queen of
Soul". She notched up such hits as All I Could Do Was
Cry, If I Can't Have You and At Last. Here her
powerhouse contralto voice was matched with the
sumptuous, bluesy string arrangements of Riley Hampton,
and James truly came into her own as a singer. Her 1963
album Etta James Rocks the House was recorded live at
the New Era club in Nashville and documents a
formidable performer.

In 1967 Leonard Chess, the founder of Chess Records,
sent James to Alabama to record at Fame studios with
the producer Rick Hall. The resulting sessions produced
the roaring Tell Mama, which took her back to the R&B
top 10. Tell Mama's B-side was I'd Rather Go Blind, a
brooding, agonised ballad of loss and jealousy which
now stands as James's most celebrated recording and one
of the classic sides of soul music. James wrote or co-
wrote several of her greatest songs.

That year, James's influence was everywhere, with a
variety of black female singers (including Turner,
Gladys Knight and Candi Staton) employing her defiant,
abrasive vocal style. Janis Joplin modelled her singing
closely on James and covered Tell Mama. James was a
star, yet one seemingly set on self-destruction.
Addicted to heroin and bad men, she lived a criminal
lifestyle and was jailed several times. After leaving
jail in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1969, she met and married
Artis Mills. When, in 1971, the couple were arrested in
San Antonio, Texas, on narcotics charges, Mills took
the fall. On his release in 1981, the couple reunited.

James never again enjoyed a major US hit, although she
continued to record strong material. Perhaps her voice,
so raw and emotionally expressive, was too fierce for
the general public. Indeed, hurt, anger and self-
destructive behaviour boiled beneath the surface of her
vocals. Once asked to describe her style, she responded
that singing allowed her to vent "all this bitch shit
inside of me".

James became a natural replacement for Joplin after the
latter's death in 1970. Teamed with Joplin's
collaborator Gabriel Meckler in 1973, James began to
record rock songs: mauling the Eagles, slugging Randy

The 1974 album Come a Little Closer, recorded while she
was in rehab at a psychiatric hospital, features James
at her best. A shift to Warner Brothers in 1978 did not
return her to a wide audience and, although she often
worked with major producers, James remained beloved
more by critics and blues-soul aficionados than a mass

When paired with the right producer and material, she
delivered superb albums: Seven Year Itch (1989),
Matriarch of the Blues (2000) and even her swansong The
Dreamer (2011) find her interpreting lyrics with grace
and venom. An elite fanclub ensured James sang at the
Los Angeles Olympics opening ceremony in 1984, appeared
in Taylor Hackford's celebrated Chuck Berry feature
Hail! Hail! Rock'n'Roll (1987), opened stadium dates
for the Rolling Stones and was inducted into the
Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. She scored a
surprising (and sole) UK top 10 hit in 1996 when her
threatening reading of I Just Want to Make Love to You
became the soundtrack to a Diet Coke advertisement. In
1995 James recorded Mystery Lady, the first in a series
of jazz vocal albums where she channelled the influence
of Billie Holiday. This brought her to yet another

James won six Grammy awards and a star on the Hollywood
Walk of Fame. Having finally conquered her drug
addiction in 1988, she began to struggle with her
weight - in 2002, weighing more than 400lb, she had
gastric bypass surgery and lost 200lb, which allowed
her to return to active singing and performing. The
film Cadillac Records, a heavily fictionalised biopic
about Chess Records, attracted wide attention due to
Beyonce's appearance as James. The young superstar made
a decent job of portraying her as a foul-mouthed, two-
fisted singer, yet lacked the raging bull quality that
made James so unforgettable.

Beyonce was invited to sing At Last at Barack Obama's
presidential inauguration in January 2009. James
publicly criticised her, then later offered an apology,
suggesting that she was upset not to have been invited
to sing herself. She added that she would have sung the
song better. Rage to Survive, James's autobiography,
was published in 1995 and proved as blistering as her
singing. diagnosed last year, James's husband and sons
became involved in a legal battle over her estate. It
has yet to be fully settled.

Johnny Otis Obituary

    One of the first US musicians to cross the
    racial divide in his search for 'soul'

By Garth Cartwright
Guardian (UK)
January 20, 2012




The bandleader Johnny Otis, who has died aged 90, was
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. He
attracted many nicknames - among them the Duke
Ellington of Watts, the Reverend Hand Jive and the
Godfather of Rhythm and Blues - and distinguished
himself as a television host, political activist,
preacher, cartoonist, painter, chef, record producer,
talent scout, DJ, sculptor, writer and organic farmer.

The economic constraints that followed the second world
war helped Otis develop a distinctive style: "I found
that when I was playing big band, now and then we'd
play a boogie or blues and that's when the people
really came to life. When I had to trim my band down, I
kept two saxophones, trumpet, trombone. I added a blues
guitar, a boogie-woogie piano player and drummer
cracking that afterbeat. That's what the people liked."

He signed the 13-year-old Esther Phillips as vocalist
for his California Rhythm and Blues Caravan touring
show in 1949. With Little Esther singing, he scored 10
top 10 R&B hits in 1950. His one US pop crossover hit
came in 1958 with Willie and the Hand Jive, and in the
UK he scored a No 2 hit in November 1957 with Ma, He's
Making Eyes at Me.

Otis was responsible for either discovering or
producing some of America's most potent R&B singers.
While scouting for King Records in the early 1950s, he
encountered Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John and Hank
Ballard at a talent show in Detroit, and they went on
to appear in the Caravan.

He produced - and played drums on - Big Mama Thornton's
first recordings, including the R&B hit Hound Dog
(1953). He was also initially credited as one of the
song's composers, though when Elvis Presley covered the
song in 1956, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller succeeded
in having his name removed.

Otis also produced all the hits of the R&B star Johnny
Ace, who died in a self-inflicted gunshot accident in
1954, the year in which Otis signed Etta James. They
co-wrote her first hit, Dance with Me, Henry (1955),
which became a bigger hit for Georgia Gibbs. Otis's
Every Beat of My Heart had to wait seven years to
become a hit for Gladys Knight in 1961. By the early
1960s, Otis found himself sidelined: "A lot of things,
including the Beatles, came along, and we were out of
it. We couldn't even get a gig."

Otis was born John Veliotes to Greek immigrants in
Vallejo, northern California. He was raised in an
ambitious family - his younger brother, Nicholas,
eventually became ambassador to Egypt. 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.

Nat King Cole recommended he move to Los Angeles in
1943 to join Harlan Leonard's jazz orchestra. He backed
the saxophonist Lester Young and the singer-pianist
Charles Brown. As a drummer, Otis led his own jazz
orchestra from 1945 to 1948. His 1945 recording Harlem
Nocturne proved a strong enough seller to get the band
bookings across the US, including a stint at the Apollo
theatre in Harlem.

Once the band's work had run its course, Otis became
more involved in community work in South Central Los
Angeles. A publisher's editor saw a letter that he had
sent to a friend about the Watts riots of 1965, and he
was invited to write Listen to the Lambs (1968), a
meditative book that jumped back and forth between his
life in music and his political views.

Though Otis failed to be elected to the California
state assembly, he did join the Los Angeles County
Democratic committee and served for a decade as deputy
chief of staff to Mervyn Dymally, the first black state
senator in the west, and an eventual lieutenant
governor of California and congressman.

However, Otis missed music. Frank Zappa, a fan of
Otis's 1950s recordings, suggested to Kent Records that
he had a comeback in mind, and that they should sign
him. The resulting album, Cold Shot! (1969), featured
Country Girl, an R&B hit, and was a critical success.
Otis then recorded an X-rated album, featuring proto-
gangsta rap braggadocio. Zappa landed Otis and his
musicians a TV appearance that led to a performance at
the 1970 Monterey jazz festival.

His revived California Rhythm and Blues Caravan -
featuring Little Esther and Otis's teenage, guitar-
playing son Shuggie - was a huge success at Monterey,
leading to nationwide and European bookings. Otis
continued to tour and record, and in 1978 opened and
served as pastor for the Landmark Community Church in
South Central Los Angeles, his main focus.

In 1990 Otis and his wife, Phyllis, moved to
Sebastopol, northern California, where they ran an
organic orchard. He hosted a weekly radio programme,
wrote his autobiography, Upside Your Head! (1993) and
appeared at festivals with a 13-member lineup. Ace
Records have recently released two CDs devoted to The
Johnny Otis Story. He is survived by Phyllis, two sons
and two daughters


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