In Memoriam: Etta James & Johnny Otis

The blues / R&B world has taken a huge hit over the past few days as we’ve lost both Etta James and Johnny Otis. James lost her battle with leukemia today and also suffered from dementia and hepatitis C, while Otis passed away at the age of 90 on Tuesday.

[Photo by Jeremy Gordon]

Etta James helped bridge the gap between R&B, blues and rock since she entered the music biz in the ’50s. Not only was she in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but James was also inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Grammys Hall of Fame. Among her many hits were At Last, Tell Mama and I’d Rather Go Blind. Closer to our neck of the woods, Etta James sat in with the Grateful Dead at the group’s New Year’s Eve performance on December 31, 1982 and had high praise for the band.

Grateful Dead w/ Etta James – Hard To Handle

Johnny Otis, known as the “Godfather of Rhythm & Blues,” actually discovered Etta James. In fact, James inducted Otis into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.  In Ihsan Taylor’s thorough obituary of Otis for the New York Times, he mentions the many hats the performer wore – musician, bandleader, songwriter, impresario, disc jockey, talent scout, political activist, a preacher, an artist, an author and an organic farmer. Not only did Otis discover Etta, but he also found Jackie Wilson, Esther Phillips and Big Mama Thornton over a brief period in the ’50s. He’s probably best known for his composition Willie and the Hand Jive, which numerous artists including Eric Clapton have recorded over the years.

We hope that Johnny Otis and Etta James are sitting together somewhere enjoying the fruits of their labor. Rock music as we known it wouldn’t have been the same without their vital contributions.

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