Two legendary musical figures with intertwined legacies passed away last week. Johnny Otis and Etta James, two of the most iconoclastic personalities in all of 20th-century music, were instrumental in the comingling of African-American and Caucasian styles that would eventually lead to modern American rock and roll, pop and rhythm and blues.
Otis was a white man who loved and promoted the music of the black community, while James was a light-skinned black singer with dyed blonde hair who charmed audiences of all colors with her sonorous voice and gracefully soulful pop ballads before settling in as a tough, sometimes cantankerous belter. They both had close relationships with the church and very public dalliances with the world. Their paths, both fraught with struggle, were inextricably linked once Otis heard the then 14-year-old James sometime around 1951 and added her to his band.
Otis was the son of Greek immigrants. He fell in love with the music of the African-American community and dedicated his life to writing, performing and promoting it. He called himself “black by persuasion.” He produced the original recording of “Hound Dog,” which, of course, was heard by Elvis. Otis was dubbed the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues” for his work as a record executive, radio host, concert promoter, songwriter and producer. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Etta James, most famous for her stunning version of “At Last,” was born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938 to an unwed 14-year-old mother who struggled with addiction and problems with the law her whole life. Johnny Otis discovered Jamesetta, changed her first name around to create “Etta James” and single handedly launched her professional career. James was a natural; equally comfortable singing pop, rock and roll, jazz, R&B, blues and gospel. After spending the 1980s in addiction-fueled obscurity, she re-emerged in 1990, releasing some of her most powerful work over the last 20 years.
Like many gospel and soul artists since, both Otis and James were just as comfortable singing about sin and debauchery as forgiveness and righteousness. Otis spent time as a pastor in the 1960s and attempted a career in politics that was driven by his passionate belief in civil rights for African Americans. James started to include gospel material into her repertoire as far back as the early ’60s. Both artists, however, crossed content and language lines at will, creating bodies of work that were both sacred and suggestive. Otis returned to the ministry in the 1990s and invested considerable time and energy in traditional gospel music. James’ inclusion of inspirational and gospel material increased later in life as well.
Johnny Otis died on Jan. 17 at his home outside of Los Angeles. Etta James, his one-time protege and possibly his greatest individual discovery, passed only days later. Some people have said that rock and roll is the devil’s music. Hogwash. Rock and roll is the fabulous and dangerous result of mixing the music of two disparate cultures that, just a few decades ago, could not find any other way to get along. The result was physical, sensual and, yes, spiritual. Sure, it can be used for ignominious purposes, but so can religion.
Otis and James knew the inspirational power of the new musical style they helped to invent. As artists they bridged the gap between black and white; sin and redemption; the temporal and the eternal. In the process they blessed us all with volumes of gritty beauty. Here’s hoping they found the peace and rest that seemed to evade them for much of their lives on this side of the veil.
John's playlist of music by Etta James and Johnny Otis can be found on Spotify.