This morning as I was writing a post to pay tribute to the life of the great Johnny Otis, who passed away yesterday, I learned of the passing of one of the greatest artists Johnny ever discovered, Ms. Etta James. While Etta James is a house-hold name (and rightfully so) the name Johnny Otis is sadly becoming less and less known by today’s music fans. Besides giving Etta James her first big break, Mr. Otis also helped start the careers of many top R&B performers. When not performing with his own band he was in the studio recording and producing sides for many of the best R&B performers. It was Johnny Otis who produced and performed on the original 1952 recording of Hound Dog featuring Big Mama Thornton. Two years later in 1954 Otis found himself in the studio again with another young blues singer, a woman by the name of Jamesetta Hawkins. Like Big Mama Thornton, Jamesetta started out performing with The Johnny Otis Band. She then moved to Los Angeles and entered the studio with the band to record what would be her break out song “The Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry)”. Written by Johnny Otis “The Wallflower” was an answer song to the Hank Ballard tune “Work With Me Annie”. Shortly after the release of the song Jamesetta (now going by the stage name Etta James) started off on a solo career that would last over 50 years. She recorded many smash hits for a number of different labels and released albums up until 2011. In addition to being successful in the recording studio James was also successful on the stage and would continue to be an in-demand performer until 2009 when she was unable to perform due to health issues.
As for Johnny Otis, discovering Etta James was just one of the many highlights in a career that lasted well into his eighties. A true renaissance man, Otis was a songwriter, performer, producer, author, store and bar owner, and painter. He even got involved in politics in his home state of California during the 1960’s. However, with all these accomplishments Johnny Otis is probably best know for writing the hit song “Willie and The Hand Jive” which would sell over 1.5 million copies and be covered by Eric Clapton for his 1974 album 461 Ocean Boulevard.
During the their lifetimes both Etta James and Johnny Otis brought to joy to millions of fans all over the world, they are both members of multiple halls of fame, and their influence can be heard in the music of artists in every genre of music. They will both be dearly missed.