Johnny and Etta Together Eternally


Etta jamesJohnny Otis and Etta James were joined in life and now only a few days 
apart they are together in death. Otis, 90, of Greek ancestry but by
 choice black and who discovered James, died last Tuesday, Jan. 17 in
 Los Angeles. James, 73, whose recording of “At Last” brought her 
everlasting fame, died on Friday, Jan. 20 in Riverside, California,
 after suffering with leukemia.

Both were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; James in 
1993 and Otis in 1994. And both changed their names. 
James first met Otis when she was singing with the Creolettes and 
arranged a meeting with him in 1952 in San Francisco at his hotel room
 to audition. But James refused to sing on command unless she could
 do it from the bathroom, which she felt would enhance her voice.
“We decided to do our jazz harmony numbers, the ones that really 
showed off our voices,” James told David Ritz, who helped her write
her memoir Rage to Survive. “We sang ‘How Deep Is the Ocean,’ ‘Street
 of Dreams,’ and ‘For All We Know.’ When we were through, total silence. Finally, Johnny Otis said, ‘Wow, did you hear that little 
girl sing?’”

Otis was so impressed that he asked them to ride back with him to
 Los Angeles to be on his show and to make some records.
 When Otis asked James how old she was she lied and told him she 
was eighteen.

“At fourteen, my childhood had ended,” she said.
 And it was the beginning of a fruitful relationship between Otis
 and James. Three years later he wrote “Roll With Me Henry” or “Dance
 With Me Henry,” the female response to Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me
 Annie,” though, because of the sexually-charged lyrics, was officially
 known as “The Wallflower.” It soared to the top of the R&B charts in

In 1958, Otis hit it big again with “Willie and the Hand Jive,” a
re working of Bo Diddley’s hit with a similar catching rhythm and blues 
number derived from a popular children’s rhyme “a shave-and-a-haircut, 
two bits.”

Otis was born John Veliotes in Vallejo, just northeast of San 
Francisco and raised in a predominantly Black neighborhood of
 Berkeley, where his father owned a grocery store. As a musician, he 
was at first a drummer and good enough to become a member of Harlan
 Leonard’s Kansas City Rockers, a southwest territory band that was a
 mainstay in the 1920s on the thriving jazz scene on L.A.’s Central 

When the jazz scene experienced terrible economic conditions the 
big bands were forced to reduce their size to small combos and this 
was to the advantage of the emerging rhythm and blues groups 
exemplified by Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five. Otis was ready for 
the change, too and in 1946 his ballad “Harlem Nocturne” was a national

In the fifties, Otis was often on the lookout for talented
 singers and once while judging a contest in Detroit discovered such 
future stars as Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Little Willie John.
 They were often wedded to his songs such as “So Fine,” and “All Nite 
Long.” A versatile musician, he’s on piano on Johnny Ace’s immortal 
“Pledging My Love,” which Otis also produced.

The invasion of rockers from Great Britain, in Otis’s estimation,
 put an end to a lucrative era of music and homegrown musicians, 
particularly the early rock and rollers and blues people, watched as 
the songs they created were coveted and covered by the Beatles, the 
Rolling Stones, et al, all the way to the bank.

But all wasn’t lost in the sixties because James had her 
trademark hit “At Last” in 1961. “I’d Rather Go Blind” was another 
song that bore her inimitable style and passion, which she co-wrote but is rarely given credit.

James’s talent evolved out of the church where at the tender age
 of six she was already in the spotlight in the church’s choir at St.
 Paul Baptist in Los Angeles.

When her foster parents died James (born Jamestta Hawkins) was
 reunited with her mother, who told her that her father was the 
legendary pool player Minnesota Fats.

Always considered among the most audacious blues divas, despite
 an enduring battle with drug addiction, James was back in the news
 when the movie “Cadillac Records” was released in 2008 with Beyonce
 reprising her songs and again when she was apparently rebuked by the
 White House in favor of Beyonce to sing “At Last” while the president
 and the first lady danced at the inaugural ceremony.

Otis and James accumulated an exhaustive list of awards, much too
 numerous to begin enumerating here, but they shared a precious moment 
in 1994 when James presented Otis during his induction into the Rock 
and Roll Hall of Fame. It was perhaps proper and fitting that the 
discoverer was presented by the star he discovered.

Photo credit: Johnny Foliot