Saturday, January 21, 2012

johnny otis and etta james, rip

In quick succession, the R&B world (and consequently the rock world) has lost two giants. Etta James and Johnny Otis. I can't, for reasons I will address below, write an adequate obituary for either of these giants, so here is an obit for Otis in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Read the whole thing. One important point:
Sadly, the word legendary barely fits his massive achievements, and "musician" is an very inadequate word to describe this singer, songwriter, bandleader, producer and discoverer of a huge roster of R&B talent.
Here is an obit for James in the Los Angeles Times. Again, read the whole thing too. One key quote:
Perhaps the quintessential R&B diva, James, who was born and lived much of her life in Los Angeles, was equally at home singing unadulterated blues, searing R&B and sophisticated jazz, the latter receiving special attention in her recordings over the last decade. Her dusky voice, which could stretch from a sultry whisper to an aching roar, influenced generations of singers who came after ...
Finally, here's a joint obit. I found the following humanizing observation particularly interesting:
Maybe it was that taste for the netherworld clubland that kept Etta James from crossing over to the mass market despite possessing a set of pipes to power a whole Rust Belt city. (Otis always went his own way, played a million one-night stands, and often recorded under the name Snatch and the Poontangs.) She wasn't churchy like Aretha, she wasn't silky like Sarah Vaughn, she wasn't skinny like Diana Ross, but of all the great female R&B singers to come of age after the rise of rock and roll, Etta James was the most street. She shot dope, got arrested for writing bad checks and forging scripts, claimed to be pool player Minnesota Fats' illegitimate daughter, and blew up to 400 pounds. Plus, she scared the shit out of you. There were few forces on earth to put the fear of God into a young boy surreptitiously listening to a transistor radio after bedtime than Etta James roaring, "Tell Mama ... all about it!"
Following one video of each:

On a personal note, I find it interesting that Otis, for lack of a better way of putting it, chose to be black. His parents were Greek, and his skin was dark enough that he could pass for black, and light enough that he could pass for white. He once wrote "As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, then I would be black."

These deaths have also brought into focus some holes in my knowledge -- holes which are the main reason I can't,myself, write an adequate obit for either singer. When I heard of James' death, I recognized her name as a giant in the industry. Similarly for Otis. But it was in the same way that many New Yorkers would recognize the name Nebraska as one of the states. OK, maybe more so. I'm familiar with much of their work, but didn't know it was them. For one example, I wouldn't have been able to identify James as the voice (or pen) behind "At Last." I won't discuss that any more now because. I intend to blog about holes in my knowledge at a future date, and this post is supposed to be about Etta James and Johnny Otis -- two giants of the music world.

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