It was no surprise to learn that Johnny Otis, a songwriter, producer and former Sebastopol resident, died this week at 90. Neither was it a shock to learn that singer Etta James, who had been ailing for some time, passed away on Thursday at 74. But taken together, their deaths bring to a close one of the most fertile and influential periods of American music, the birth and heyday of Rhythm and Blues.
It was in elementary school in Pasadena where I first became aware of Johnny Otis. It was a mixed school, and being a kid I was for the most part unaware of race issues – my best friends were Frank (a Japanese), Ronnie (a black) and Oscar (from Guatemala). All the kids where learning the “hand jive,” and when the song came on the radio it was like our schoolyard games hit the big time.
I found out later that by the time “Willie and the Hand Jive” became his biggest hit, in 1958, Johnny Otis had already over a dozen songs on the charts, dating from 1945 when the moody, soulful “Harlem Nocturne” (which he did not write) became a big-band hit for Johnny Otis and His Orchestra.
Otis – whose real name was John Veliotes, from a Greek family – became a huge force in the music at the very time it was transitioning from “race music” to rhythm-and-blues. He played with and discovered many singers and groups from the East L.A. and later the East Bay, where he lived, including the Robins (who became the Coasters), Big Jay McNeeley (one of the originators of the “honking” style of sax playing), Little Esther Phillips (“Misery”), Big Mama Thornton (“Hound Dog), Jackie Wilson (“Lonely Teardrops”), Hank Ballard (“Work with Me Annie”) and Little Willie John (“Fever”).
But none became as big as the 14-year old girl named Etta James. They concocted a follow-up hit to Hank Ballard’s called “Roll with Me, Henry,” which became an R&B hit and, a year later, number one on the Billboard charts under the title “Dance with Me, Henry” by a pop (e.g., white) singer named Georgia Gibbs.
James was furious, and the temperamental young woman struggled with her career throughout the 1950s until she signed with Chess Records in 1960 (check out the movie “Cadillac Records” for one version of that story, with Beyonce playing James.) Her later hits, including “At Last” and “I’d Rather Go Blind”, became signature tunes in a lengthy career that included multiple appearances at the Monterey and San Francisco Jazz Festivals in the 1990s.
Hospitalized for the last time just before Christmas, she died on January 20 after suffering from leukemia and Alzheimer's.
But Etta James, as great as she was, was but one talent who lived under the big tent that Johnny Otis created. While his hit-making career reached its peak with “Willie and the Hand Jive,” he not only never stopped making music but never limited his life to one career. A true polymath, he was singer, songwriter, bandleader, drummer, vibraharpist, talent scout, painter, cook, campaign manager, congressional candidate, preacher, apple juice farmer and a few other things besides. Maybe he didn’t excel at everything (he lost that congressional race) but he did everything. And that’s the most important step.
But is was his music that added to the soundtrack of my life, and many others besides. Still in Southern California, his R&B shows were promoted widely on his radio program and others, his crazy-ass promotion never predictable or less than entertaining. Along with B. Mitchell Reed on KFWB and Wolfman Jack on XERB, Johnny Otis was must-hear late-night radio.
I clearly recall his 1969 album, with his last charted song “Country Girl,” with its audacious cover of three men: his hippie son guitarist Shuggie Otis raising two fingers in a peace symbol, the Afro-sporting singer Mighty Mouth Evans giving a black power fist, and in the middle gray-bearded Johnny Otis, arm raised high with a single-digit salute obscured by the album’s title, “Cold Shot.”
On that album I first heard “Signifyin’ Monkey,” a true roots classic of R&B, with its unbroadcastable lyrics. Other songs of his kept popping up: “Feel So Good,” a hit he produced for Shirley and Lee in the doo-wop era, became a big reggae hit for Derrick Morgan. His song “So Fine” by the Fiestas is hands-down on of the great singles of the 50s, IMHO. Don & Dewey, one of his favorite groups to judge by his late-in-life radio show, charted big with his “I’m Leavin’ It All Up to You,” among others – and Don Harris of that duo became rock fiddler Sugarcane Harris for Frank Zappa.
In the 1990s Otis moved, surprisingly, to Sebastopol – hardly the racially rich turf he’d made his own in Watts and Oakland. Fortunately he brought his music with him, and I saw him at places like the Apple Blossom Festival and, memorably, New Year’s Eve at what was then the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.
During this time Otis had a Saturday morning radio program on KPFA, broadcast live from Sebastopol, during which he’d chat, reminisce and play many of the hits from his lengthy career.
Toward the end of that program, however, his presence became less monumental, and sadder. He’d tell the same stories, play the same songs, first every week and then within each hour. The co-hosts covered for him as best they could, eventually running the whole show. When the program ended, in 2006, it was no surprise.
Otis moved back from Sebastopol, where he had late in life purchased an apple farm, and returned to Altadena, a neighborhood in the foothills near Pasadena. It was full circle for him – it was in Altadena where he started one of his many churches, the last of which was in Forestville, the Landmark Community Gospel Church.
Now the press is full of tributes to him, recognizing his contribution and lauding his talent. (Listen to this NPR tribute for one, or read Dan Taylor's piece in the Press Democrat.) But for some of us, it's personal.
He was my kind of preacher – open-minded, frank, inspirational and audacious. With his departure, three days before Etta James followed him, that band in heaven has finally got its maestro.