Saturday, 21 January 2012

RIP to Etta James, Johnny Otis, and other early R&R greats

The past week two iconic figures of the early years of R&B and R&R died; a pioneer of the classic beat and the last of the classic Divas;

Etta James w/BB King, Paul Butterfield and Dr. John ~ "Something's got a hold on me" (1970's TV appearance) ;

Etta James was the last of the great Divas of the latter part of the post-war era that included Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, Koko Taylor, Big Mama Thorton and Ella Fitzgerald. Big, strong women with big strong vices who sang the blues, gospel and jazz with majestic sorrow and pride that would lead later singers like Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Janis Joplin to take it to the mainstream in the 1960's. Etta was among the bluesiest of the bunch but also versatile enough to cover sweet ballads with string sections and belting blues with equal aplomb.

Born in Los Angeles in 1938, Etta's mother was 14 and her father unknown, although she always suspected it was the famous pool player Minnesota Fats. She began singing in her teens and formed a Doo-Wop group which was discovered by Johnny Otis who renamed them The Peaches which also became her nickname. She recorded her first hit "Dance with me Henry" when she was 15 for Modern Records in 1955 only to see a cover version by white singer Georgia Gibbs become a bigger hit on the white pop charts. In 1960 she moved to Chess Records where she would have her biggest hits including "At last", "Tell Mama" and "I'd rather go blind".

Etta James ~ "I'd rather go blind" (2001);

She had a slew of other hits into the 1970's and was also a major touring artist who won six Grammys until her career was sidetracked for a decade do to drug problems, especially heroin. She would spend much of the late 1970's and 1980's in and out of rehab and sometimes even getting arrested for various drug related offenses. She also had serious health issues as well with diabetes, weight problems and eventually leukemia and Alzheimer's. She would still find the time to occasionally perform including a dramatic version of "At last" on "Dancing with the stars" in 2009. She was portrayed by Beyonce in the 2008 movie "Capitol Records" and was not happy with the portrayal, although it helped to introducer to a new generation. Beyonce would also sing "At last" at the Obama inauguration when Etta was too ill to appear. It was the leukemia that would eventually kill her just mere days before her 74th birthday.

Etta James ~ "At last" performed on "Dancing with the stars" in 2009, her last major appearance;

Johnny Otis ~ (real name Ioannis Alexandres Veliote) 1950's R&B singer/band leader who played piano and drums. As his real name shows he was Greek but with his dark complexion he passed for mulatto and most of his legion of mostly black fans assumed he was. After playing in the 1940's with swing bands led by Harlan Leonard, Wynonie Harris and Charles Brown he formed his own band and wrote the classic hit "Willie and the hand jive" in 1958 which inspired Bo Diddly with it's distinctive beat and was hugely influential. Also had hits with "Harlem Nocturne'" in 1946, and produced and/or co-wrote such records as Big Mama Thorton's original version of "Hound Dog", "Roll With Me, Henry" for Etta James and "Every Beat of My Heart", first recorded by The Royals in the 1952 but later a hit for Gladys Knight. As a band leader and A&R man for King Records Otis discovered singers like Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, Little Willie John, Mel Walker,Little Ester Phillips and the Robins (later the Coasters) sax man Big Jay McNeely. As a session man he backed Johnny Guitar Watson. Otis hosted his own TV show in Los Angeles in the 1950's. His son, Shuggie Otis also had a career as an R&B band leader in the 1960's & 70's. In the 1960's he later also entered politics and ran for California State Assembly as a Democrat and lost then becoming chief of staff to another assemblyman. He was also a church pastor. He died just three weeks after his 90th birthday.

Johnny Otis ~ "Willie and the hand jive";

A episode of "The Johnny Otis Show' from the 1950's w/ Lionel Hampton;

Red Holloway ~ Jazz sax player w/Etta James,Dexter Gordon Willie Dixon, Junior Parker, Lloyd Price, and John Mayall.
In the 1950s he played in the Chicago area with Billie Holiday, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Ben Webster, Jimmy Rushing, Arthur Prysock, Eddie Vinson, Sonny Rollins, Red Rodney, Lester Young, Joe Williams, Redd Foxx, B.B. King, Bobby Bland and Aretha Franklin. During this period, he also toured with Sonny Stitt, Memphis Slim and Lionel Hampton and later the young George Benson. He became a member of the house bands for Chance and Vee Jay Records ~ 84

Billy Strange ~ 1960's composer. Wrote "Limbo Rock" later done by The Champs, Routers, Ventures and Chubby Checker, Arthur Lyman, The Knickerbockers and Chet Atkins and Hank Snow. Also teamed up with Mac Davis and wrote several hit songs for Elvis Presley, including "A Little Less Conversation". He acted as writer,arranger, producer and guitarist for Nancy Sinatra for hits including "Something stupid". Also played as session guitarist for the Beach Boys on the hit "Sloop John B" as well as for Jan & Dean, The Ventures, Willie Nelson, The Everly Brothers, Wanda Jackson, Randy Newman, and Nat King Cole ~ 81

The Beach Boys ~ "Sloop John B");

The Champs ~ "Limbo Rock";

Louisiana Red ~ Blues singer/guitarist from the 1949 when he recorded for Chess Records right up to last year. Also played with John Lee Hooker. Moved to Germany in 1981.

Louisiana Red ~ "Alabama train";

Al Urban ~ 1950's rockabilly singer ("Lookin for money"), later a country songwriter w/ hits for Charlie Rich ~ 76

Al Urban ~ "Lookin' for money";

Larry Butler Nashville pianist and producer died at 69; he (played on "Hello Darlin"), as well as Johnny Cash, Roger Miller, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn and others. Became a producer for Kenny Rogers, Charlie Rich, Mac Davis, Debbie Boone and John Denver ~ 69

Conway Twitty ~ "Hello Darlin'";

And finally one non-musician who actually made a difference to Canadian music and radio; Pierre Juneau, 89, Canadian broadcasting executive and head of The CRTC and the National Film Board. He didn't sign, play, produce or write a song but he brought in the famous CanCon rules forcing Canadian Radio Stations to actually play some Canadian artists. Before Juneau they didn't have to, and usually played as little Canadian music as possible. After Juneau that changed. This also forced record labels to open branches in Canada and sign Canadian artists instead of their having to go south of the border. It also meant that labels in Canada could have a shot at the airways as well. Right wingers were upset at this "government interference" then and they still are. They complained that Canadians were too mediocre and their records not good enough to play or sell. They hysterically predicted that audiences would tune out if they actually had to listen to Canadian music. That radio stations and record labels would go out of business. The results were immediate and speak for themselves. When Much Music went on the air twenty years later the CanCon regs would also applied to them, but by then it didn't matter. There was clearly enough good Canadian talent to go around. In his one attempt to run for office (as a Liberal) he was defeated. No matter, he did good.

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