As In Life, So In Death
American originals Etta James and Johnny Otis: together at the beginning, together at the end, together forever. A remembrance, plus a guide to their essential recordings.
By David McGee
In death as in life, Johnny Otis and Etta James were inextricably linked.
In 1952 Otis discovered a powerful 14-year-old church-trained blues singer then going by her birth name, Jamesetta Hawkins, performing with a pair of her girlfriends in a group called the Creolettes. The occasion was a concert at the Primalon Ballroom on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. Mightily impressed by what he heard from the youngster, Otis whisked Jamesetta to a recording studio in Los Angeles where the next day she and her group (renamed The Peaches, as per Otis’s instructions) cut a song she and Otis had co-written, “Dance With Me, Henry," an answer song to Hank Ballard’s popular “Work With Me, Annie”, for the Modern label. (This is one of several variations of the story of how Otis met James, but they all end with her being signed to Modern almost on the spot and heading straight to the studio.) Otis’s confidence in the singer he renamed Etta James was well founded: issued in 1955, “Dance With Me, Henry” topped the R&B chart. (It was later retitled “The Wallflower” after radio stations found the original title too salacious.)
Etta James and The Peaches, ‘The Wallflower’ (aka ‘Dance With Me, Henry’), 1955--Etta’s debut, recorded the day after Johnny Otis discovered her singing in a San Francisco ballroom. It topped the R&B chart.
Otis and James went their separate ways and both became musical icons: Otis—a white man who lived his life as “black by persuasion,” as he put it, and proudly and loudly rebuked racism in all its sundry forms—constructed the foundation for rock ‘n’ roll with out of his incendiary, spirited R&B and intense live show; discovered and/or advanced other stellar artists including Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Little Esther in addition to Etta James; and was a hit making juggernaut with his orchestra, notching 16 Top 10 R&B singles between 1948 and 1952, then coming back in 1958 with a certified rock ‘n’ roll classic in “Willie and the Hand Jive,” another #1 R&B tune but also a huge crossover hit at #9 pop. James became nothing less than one of the most important R&B/blues vocalists in history, whose intensely personal interpretive artistry, whether on heated, uptempo workouts on the order of “Dance With Me, Henry” or smoldering pop-style ballads (the monumental “At Last,” first recorded by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, is forever her signature song), ranks her with the not only the greatest singers of her time, but with the greatest of all time—Billie, Ella, Bessie, Mahalia, Dinah, Sarah, Aretha, Jo. Etta. Simply Etta.
On January 17 Johnny Otis passed away at age 90. Three days later, Etta crossed over too, at age 73. Otis, who had been bedridden for some time, died at home of natural causes; James, who had been in failing health for years with a variety of ailments, died of complications from leukemia. (In typical Etta fashion, she refused to let her health issues stop her: in 2011 she cut one of her finest latter-day albums, The Dreamer, a moving and occasionally funky collection of life ruminations, and in many respects an homage to her roots), .
Johnny Otis, ‘Willie and the Hand Jive,’ live on The Johnny Otis Show. Lionel Hampton makes an appearance.
There was no shortage of emotional encomiums to James and Otis when news of their deaths broke. Arguably the most astute and concise summation of James’s artistry came from Bonnie Raitt, who observed in the L.A. Times: "I don't know that there's ever been a singer that knocked me out as much as Etta. The mark she made was setting the bar so high for the depths someone can sing from. The ache and the pain and the ferocity and the soul and the sexiness--it all came through in the space of one three-minute song."
In The Atlantic.com, Jack Hamilton offered a laudable tribute to Otis containing this key passage: “Johnny Otis saw American racial logic for the tortuous thicket of stupidity that it is and decided he wanted none of it. That he did this in the 1940s and 1950s, before it was the hip thing for white folks to talk loudly about how race doesn't matter, is staggering. When Otis hit the pop charts with ‘Hand Jive,’ suddenly attracting the very white kids he'd never been all that interested in, rock and roll was still a lean and hungry menace, a gathering revolution on the make, all grinding hips and gnashing teeth. ‘Help Save the Youth of America? DON'T BUY NEGRO RECORDS’ read the infamous flyer circulated by White Citizens' Councils; here was a white man who wasn't just buying Negro records, he was making them. The great white-supremacist fear of rock and roll music wasn't that a generation of kids would grow up to be Chuck Berry--it was that that they'd grow up to be Johnny Otis, staring down their own whiteness, noisily sending it back to the worthless factory from whence it came.”
It would be more accurate to say the white supremacists’ fears were not centered on Johnny Otis—most of them probably didn’t even know who he was—but rather on the cats coming out of Sun Records in Memphis, who had Otis’s feel for black music, Otis’s love of it, and the captivating personal appeal that drove their kids—especially their girls—wild. Elvis got so big so fast that he didn’t really feel these bigots’ wrath, but Carl Perkins had stare-down, toe-to-toe personal confrontations with a number of these lugs while touring the southern circuit where Sun artists made their bread and butter. What the racists feared was what these artists represented—not only a staring down of their own whiteness, but, in their defense of black artists and black music, the end of a way of life in which blacks were second-class citizens. When the first generation of rock ‘n’ roll artists kicked that door down (black and white together—Fats Domino stood up to his inquisitors with a sweet smile and a gentle, civil “Far as I know music makes people feel good”--with big assists from courageous disc jockeys such as Alan Freed, Nashville’s “Hoss” Allen, Tulsa’s Scooter Seagraves, L.A.’s Hunter Hancock and countless others throughout the country who saw the future and knew it was a coat of many colors), America became a better country, even if we are still fighting those same battles today with our first black President in office.
Johnny Otis and Etta James made music that was about life and was life affirming all at once. It was rich, it was soulful, it was sometimes steeped in deep personal pain in James’s case, it had an unquenchable spirit. It is beautiful, it is timeless. After James made some intemperate remarks about Beyonce’s superficial treatment of “At Last,” she recanted but didn’t exactly back down, saying she was hurt that she couldn’t sing “her song” at the Obama Inaugural and adding as to how she would have done a better job. She was right, of course, about doing it better because she knew “her song” from the inside out in a way the hopeless Beyonce will never understand should she live a hundred years--a point Etta put a fine point on in 2009, when she brought the house down with an impossibly soulful version of “At Last” on the April 7 installment of Dancing With The Stars, infusing it with such a delicate balance of relief and wariness as to rewrite her monument as a battle of conflicting emotions she was still sorting out. In a real sense, pretty much every song Etta James sang was “her song,” so indelible was the personal stamp she put on her material, much asno other band could ever precisely duplicate the fury and inventiveness of the Johnny Otis Orchestra in full flight.
With all the obituaries having been written, perhaps readers are best served at this juncture by a guide to the essential recordings of Johnny Otis and Etta James. This guide focuses on domestic releases, which is unfortunate in Otis’s case because far more of his work is available as imports than as domestic CDs. Still, plenty of prime-time Johnny O exists on these shores, and generally speaking you can’t go wrong with the choices here. Ditto with the Etta James selections drawn from a catalogue rife with numerous and dizzying hits repackages but winnowed down, if that’s the right word, to those that best represent the breadth and depth of her musical legacy.
The place to start with Etta James is at Heart & Soul: A Retrospective, a four-CD box set issued last year by Hip-O Select. These 84 tracks herein span 53 years of recording history, from 1955 to 2008, and offer all the proof necessary to justify the most extravagant claims for James’s artistry: R&B, blues, soul, pop, jazz--she handles it all with ease and authority, with an innate understanding of the idioms, an impressive rhythmic sense, a completely unself-conscious daring to expose her raw feelings to public inspection, an ability to be equally credible as a sensitive, romantic balladeer and as a rip roaring belter. Her lung power is of operatic magnitude; her sensitive, reflective excursions into the dark night of the soul are as convincing and revealing as Sinatra’s. This box set draws its repertoire from all the labels James toiled for in the years in question--Modern, Argo, Chess, Warner Bros., Fantasy, Island, Private Music and RCA--and includes previously unissued gems such as her powerhouse funk treatment of Stevie Wonder’s topical “Higher Ground” and, as the final cut on Disc 4, a swampy, gospelized, gritty treatment of Rodney Crowell’s classic “Ashes By Now,” a song usually reserved for country artists that she completely remakes into a different beast. Disc 4 also contains some of her latter-era jazz-inflected sides, and she just keeps on keepin’ on. The classy package includes rare photographs and a typically insightful liner essay by Bill Dahl.
The Dreamer, her musical last will and testament, also released in 2011, brings all her strengths to the fore: kicking off with a rousing rendition of King Floyd’s chart topping 1970 hit “Groove Me,” she goes on to tackle the surprising (treating Guns ‘N Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” as a soul grinder); the poignant (her tribute to Otis Redding with a moody reading of his heartbreaker, “Cigarettes & Coffee”); the philosophical (on the down-and-out blues of “That’s the Chance You Take”); and the personal (signing off with a chilling plea “Let Me Down Easy” in a classic southern soul arrangement).
Etta James, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind,’ from Tell Mama (1968), one of the decade’s exceptional albums.
After her quick start on Modern faded, James relocated to Chicago in 1959 jumped to the Chess label in 1960 and signed with the Chess label, where one of the A&R directors was Harvey Fuqua, founder of the Moonglows and a solo recording artist who had a history with James, having cut a duet with her on Modern (“I Hope You’re Satisfied”).
At Chess James produced the performances on which her legend rests, a body of work impassioned, intelligent and deeply felt, both personal and painful in the telling. She cried out in song, relating tales of faithless love and ceaseless heartbreak (stories she described in explicit detail in her acclaimed autobiography, Rage to Survive, published in 1994); even her upbeat numbers seemed tinged by sadness, mirroring the emotional roller-coaster of her interior life. Several MCA/Chess compilations offer powerful evidence in support of this position. Completists are advised to check out the superbly-annotated (by David Ritz, who co-wrote James’s autobiography), two-CD, 44-song set issued in 1993, The Essential Etta James, for the broadest overview of the enduring work she did for the Argo, Chess and Cadet labels from 1960 through 1975. Here James is heard successfully adapting her style to the changing trends in black music, working with some of the best producers and arrangers of her time, as well as first-rate songwriters (the subtlety and personality she brings to her performances of several Randy Newman numbers cut in the early ‘70s indicate she might well be that fabled songwriter’s preeminent interpreter); whatever the style, whomever the composer, the hurt is always near the surface. During her Chess tenure she also turned to recording pop standards in her singular, bluesy style; These Foolish Things: The Classic Balladry of Etta James (again with liner notes by David Ritz) charts this compelling strain of her artistry. The dozen cuts on Part One of The Sweetest Peaches volumes rank among the best R&B singles of the ‘60s. A sampling of the titles maps out James’s barren emotional landscape during this period: “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “Fool That I Am,” “I Wish Someone Would Care,” “Pushover.” Her self-penned “Stop the Wedding” was a Top Forty pop hit in 1962, enabling James to dive headfirst into the good life. She wound up a heroin addict, and her music assumed a harsh, bitter edge (it’s a long road that leads from “All I Could Do Was Cry” to a tough cover version of Jimmy Reed’s unapologetic “Baby What You Want Me To Do”) as her life fell into disarray.
Etta James, ‘Security,’ written by Otis Redding, featured on Etta’s superb 1968 album Tell Mama, was nominated for a Grammy as Best R&B Vocal Solo Performance, Female.
Though 1963 found her delivering a rousing live album, Etta James Rocks the House, recorded at a small Nashville night spot with a band whose members are unidentified, James was then in emotional freefall. Eventually she headed back to California, went into rehab, and came out clean. Seeking to reinvigorate her music, she journeyed south, to Sheffield, Alabama, and the Muscle Shoals Sound studio. Soul music was the order of the day, and some of the best was coming out of that northern Alabama facility where Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and a host of other top artists had cut some of their most important sides. Tell Mama and four tracks on Part Two of The Sweetest Peaches reveal the wisdom of this move: Tell Mama is one of the decade’s outstanding albums; it yielded two Top Thirty hits in the title song and the Otis Redding-penned “Security,” and is defined by James’s forceful performances. Reissued in 2001 as Tell Mama: The Complete Muscle Shoals Sessions, the original 12-song album is now a robust 22-song collection with some tasty items such as a gospel-soul take on David Houston’s country hit “Almost Persuaded” that brings out the best in James’s interpretive genius and in the Muscle Shoals players, who respond to the singer's cries with subdued yet burning feeling; as well as a reimagining of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” as a full-on, horn-drenched, Stax-style churner.
In the early ‘70s James was teamed with rock-oriented producer Gabriel Mekler, whose credits included Janis Joplin, Three Dog Night, and Steppenwolf. Come a Little Closer (along with cuts on Part Two of The Sweetest Peaches and on The Essential Etta James) was the upshot, but only the above-mentioned Randy Newman-penned songs stand out. Following another near-disastrous bout with drugs (cocaine this time) and another round of rehab, James left Chess. But like LaVern Baker and Ruth Brown, great ladies of ‘50s R&B who later hit tough times artistically and personally before rebounding on the strength of their voices and sheer determination, James was not about to be undone by shifting trends. In 1978 she signed to Warner Bros. and delivered the Jerry Wexler-produced Deep in the Night, which not only pointed her in the right direction again professionally but was regarded by Wexler as the best album he ever made as a producer. The backing band, comprised a cream-of-the-crop lineup of late ‘70s Los Angeles session players, including Jim Horn, Jeff Porcaro, Cornell Dupree, Plas Johnson and Chuck Rainey, plays like it’s in Muscle Shoals or Memphis. It’s not all successful--Etta’s heavy handed treatment of Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed” swings and misses at the original’s diabolic duality; and though it must have seemed like a good idea at the time, the spunky, funky, soul reworking of “Lovesick Blues” robs the song of, well, its blues. But turning the dreaded Eagles’ “Take It To the Limit” into a gospel house wrecker is inspired, and Etta brings it home with a vengeance; and Etta’s deliberate, punishing delivery of “Piece of My Heart” is perfectly complemented by pumping horns and a gospel chorus in a rendition that stands completely apart from Janis Joplin’s and is equally staggering.
‘I was thinkin’ about a man who might’ve loved me, but I never knew’: Etta James’s live version of The Eagles’ ‘Take It To the Limit.’ The song was featured as a gospel house wrecker on her Jerry Wexler-produced Deep In the Night album (1978).
James came all the way back with her live album, Blues in the Night, recorded in Los Angeles in 1986 with a band that included alto saxophonist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. Here, her version of “At Last” is as moody and affecting as the original, and on “Misty” she demonstrates how time and personal misfortune have deepened her sensitivity to the undercurrents of emotion at play in some classic pop standards. A companion volume, The Late Show, is even better, with a rollicking version of “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” and fervent renditions of her former Modern labelmate B.B. King’s “Sweet Little Angel” (she and B.B. were dating when they were both on Modern, and word around the campfire is that he wrote “Sweet Sixteen” about Etta) and of “I’d Rather Go Blind” that are further enlivened by blues solos from guitarist Shuggie Otis. Of her two Island albums, Stickin’ to My Guns best shows her adapting a hard R&B approach to a contemporary funk-rock sound. Produced by Barry Beckett, one of the stalwarts of the famed Muscle Shoals rhythm section who played on James’s sessions there, the album’s song selection runs the gamut from rock to country-soul. James sounds at home throughout, albeit with a more brittle edge--but then, it has been that kind of life. How Strong Is a Woman, on the 4th & Bway label, is an 11-track anthology culled from the two Island releases, essentially a “greatest hits”-type collection, although neither long-player had a chart hit on it. Still, the music here is first-rate.
As it turned out, the Island years were but prelude to greater glories for Etta James. In 1993 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; a year later, after signing with Private Music, she delivered the best album of her long career in the Grammy-winning Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday. For James, this was both an homage to an artist whose personal traumas mirrored her own and an artistic challenge of the highest order. Though her style isn’t as haunted or as ethereal as Holiday’s, the sultry, longing quality with which James invests a lyric adds rich subtext to some of Holliday’s signature songs. “Lover Man,” “The Man I Love,” “Body and Soul,” “I’ll Be Seeing You”--these chestnuts are reinvigorated by way of thoughtful, reflective interpretations that are towering works of intepretive artistry. The assembled musicians, directed by pianist-arranger Cedar Walton, evince heightened sensitivity to the vocalist’s mood--on “Lover Man,” so poignantly rendered by James, the sole support is in the form of guitarist Josh Sklair’s minimalist chording and a feathery trumpet line floating through the song’s midsection--in one cut an illustration of the near-perfect marriage of song selection, performance and arrangement that is Mystery Lady.
From Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday, ‘The Man I Love’
So how do you follow a masterpiece? With 1995’s Time After Time, a smart move that finds James going back to one of her strengths, pop standards done in a blues/jazz vein, again with Cedar Walton arranging and playing piano with largely the same band lineup as on Mystery Lady. Here James is given room to stretch out vocally; where Mystery Lady is remarkable for its sustained, hypnotic low-key ambiance, Time After Time finds the vocalist breaking free on occasion and showing off her belter’s side to spectacular effect--the explosion of emotion at the close of “Don’t Go To Strangers” is one of James’s most forceful statements on record, and she follows it with a swaggering, sassy romp through “Teach Me Tonight.” A deliberate, wan reading of “My Funny Valentine” is a case study of how she summons a wealth of contradictory emotions in evoking love’s complex and constantly shifting moods, again plumbing her own experience to impart some hard-earned wisdom to her listeners. The same strategy, in effect, was applied to 1997’s Love’s Been Rough on Me. Described by James in her liner notes as “a country record” (it was recorded in Nashville, with, for the most part, Nashville-based musicians, and produced by then-Nashville-based Barry Beckett), this one’s the bluesiest country record any artist was likely to cut in Nashville back then or now--Wynonna would recognize it as a country record, because its R&B flavor hits close to what she’s been pursuing in her solo career, but otherwise…who?
Etta James, ‘My Funny Valentine,’ from the Time After Time album (1995)
Although it was recorded in 1981, Live From San Francisco wasn’t released until 1994. It serves a purpose in filling in the “lost years” of the ‘80s, when James was virtually off record, and brought her back to the town to where she spent part of her childhood (“it brought out the wild child in me,” she says of the town in David Ritz’s liner notes here) and where she could always find a loyal audience, no matter the arc of her career at the moment. Recorded at the Boarding House, one of James’s regular haunts, the occasion finds the artist in a blues frame of mind, singing from the gut and basically adopting a scorched earth policy to every song on the set list. This is one powerful outing, a staggering blues performance captured live. Her version of “Take It To the Limit,” reconsidered as a blues stomp incorporating a gospel call-and-response section at its close, is as striking as it was on Deep In the Night. In a roaring romp through “Baby What You Want Me To Do?”, James uses the instrumental break to do her vocal imitation of Jimmy Reed’s harmonica solo. Throw in a tender moment on her interpretation of Kiki Dee’s “Sugar On the Floor” (another song from Deep In the Night) and you get a well-rounded set of emotional peaks and valleys, superbly rendered by an artist who may have been forgotten by the industry at the time, but still had plenty left to say.
From Dancing With the Stars, April 7, 2009, ‘At Last,’ infusing it with such a delicate balance of relief and wariness as to rewrite her monument as a battle of conflicting emotions she’s still sorting out. Take that, Beyonce.
Johnny Otis, born John Veliotes in 1921 to Greek immigrant parents in Vallejo, California, is a true Renaissance figure in music history. For one, he had the talent to be a major artist in his own right, and indeed, recorded prolifically for Savoy and Capitol and was a bonafide star on the R&B circuit. As a songwriter, he cut a wide swath: He wrote all of Little Esther’s early hits on Savoy, co-wrote “Dance With Me, Henry” with Etta James, wrote “Every Beat Of My Heart” for Gladys Knight, and “So Fine” for the Fiestas. He produced Big Mama Thornton’s original version of Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog” and produced and played vibes on Johnny Ace’s immortal “Pledging My Love.”
In the big picture, Otis has been the most selfless of artists, content to boost others’ careers without ever seeming to push his own, except behind the scenes. He was one of the first, if not the first, to package blues and R&B artists and take them on the road as a traveling all-star show. A smart judge of artistry, Otis, in his revues, typically featured some unknown singer bound for glory. Little Esther Phillips, Hank Ballard, Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, Etta James, and Big Mama Thornton were only a few of the names with whom Otis was associated (or vice versa) in the ‘50s.
Johnny Otis, ‘Harlem Nocturne’ (1945), with Rene Block on sax
Otis’s early recordings, available on the Capitol and Savoy releases, represent some of the finest examples of postwar rhythm & blues. A multi-instrumentalist, Otis began his career in 1939 as a drummer with the West Oakland Houserockers; throughout the ‘40s he toured the country in various big bands before forming the Johnny Otis Orchestra in 1948 and cutting a national hit with “Harlem Nocturne,” a beautiful, noir-ish instrumental modeled on a Duke Ellington arrangement of the original Earle Hagen song. Touring with the likes of the Ink Spots and Louis Jordan, Otis and his band became a big ticket item; by 1950 he was the best-selling R&B recording artist in the country, even as he followed other big bands in paring down to a smaller configuration--getting leaner as the music itself did the same--and moving toward a rawer, bluesier sound. The Johnny Otis Rhythm & Blues Caravan: The Complete Savoy Recordings documents this fruitful early era of Otis’s career over the course of three discs, 77 songs and more than three hours of the finest, fiercest and even dreamy (“Harlem Nocturne” is the first track on Disc 1, which also contains the beautiful heartbreaker, “Cry Baby”) ‘40s and ‘50s R&B the era produced, with fine singers such as Little Esther and Mel Walker fronting the band. The leaner, built-for-speed period, which produced the eternally fresh “Willie and the Hand Jive” and other distinguished late-‘50s efforts, is the focus of The Capitol Years, a poorly annotated but solid overview featuring tasty entries such as the rollicking “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’,” “Willie Did the Cha-Cha,” “Three Girls Named Molly,” and a terrific “Castin’ My Spell,” with a captivating lead vocal by Marci Lee.
Being in or out of the spotlight never seemed to bother Otis. When his style of music was pushed off the charts in the ‘60s, he surfaced now and then with an all-stops-out show that was at once a glorious celebration of hard-driving R&B and roots rock 'n' roll, with his gifted guitarist son Shuggie standing out among the stellar cast of instrumentalists. Offstage, other pursuits occupied Otis’s time: he became a community activist; ran for political office; befriended Malcolm Little when he was known as “Detroit Red” before he became Malcolm X; was a preacher for a while (and founded his own church); was a painter, a sculptor, a radio show host—and remained forever unyielding and unceasing in speaking out against racism in all its forms.
Johnny Otis, ‘Call Operator 210’ (written by Floyd Dixon), with Mel Walker on lead vocal. Available on the album The Mercury Rhythm and Blues Story, 1945-1955.
Still, music remained a focal point. In 1969 he returned with Cold Shot (the album cover shows son Shuggie flashing a peace sign; singer Mighty Mouth Evans offering a black power salute; and Johnny O. punctuating the album title with an extended middle finger. It’s not a great album, but the addition of Shuggie in the band brought some fresh energy to the rock, soul and funk explorations. Today’s it’s mostly remembered as harboring the original version of the audacious “The Signifyin’ Monkey, Part 1,” an unabashedly profane tale told in a spoken delivery that would be called rap today.
But Otis was not yet finished with “The Signifyin’ Monkey." That same year it resurfaced on another Otis album, and in two parts yet. At TheHoung Blog, James “The Hound” Marshall offered an informed tribute to Otis, including this important insight into a forgotten Otis masterpiece:
Of his sixties work, perhaps his finest moment came in 1969 when Johnny, Shuggie and singer Mighty Mouth Evans recorded under the nom du disque Snatch and the Poontangs (Kent), an LP of the filthiest, nastiest, most x-rated rock 'n' roll of all time. It was Otis' successful attempt to preserve the part of Afro-American folk culture sometimes called toasting, or the dozens, in which traditional oral history is handed down in the most profane manner possible. Hip-hop grew out of this and field recordings made in prisons in the 1940s and ‘50s uncovered a rich oral tradition of hilarious boasts and insults. My favorite track is "Hey Shine,” which tells the tale of the black shipmate Shine, the best part of the Titanic story (of course it was left out of the movie). The story of the "Signifyin' Monkey" is told in two parts (part one, part two), I especially like the "true whore's oath" section of the second part. Otis had quite a backround in stuff like this, the Johnny Otis Show having provided the music for dozens of black comedy LPs by Skillet & Leroy, LaWanda Page (Aunt Esther from Sanford & Son), and others on the Laff label throughout the sixties.
(In 2002 England’s Ace Records reissued Cold Shot and Snatch and the Poontangs as a two-fer CD.)
‘An LP of the filthiest, nastiest, most x-rated rock 'n' roll of all time’: Snatch and the Poontangs, ‘Hey Shine.’ Parental discretion advised. (1969)
Other albums show Otis and his troupe in splendid form through the years. In 1970 he appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival with a lineup that overshadowed even his finest aggregations in the ‘40s or ‘50s. Beginning with a rousing version of “Willie and the Hand Jive,” The Johnny Otis Show Live at Monterey! provides a note-perfect showcase for some of the acknowledged giants of R&B: No sooner have the last notes of “Hand Jive” ended than does Little Esther Phillips step forward for a tough version of “Cry Me a River.” Joe Turner retires the nickname Boss of the Blues on two cuts, “I Got a Gal” and “Plastic Man.” One of the set’s most elegant touches comes courtesy the gentleman singer Ivory Joe Hunter, who offers a mellow, moving reprise of his hit, “Since I Met You Baby,” and a couple of cuts later Roy Brown comes blowing in with a torrid “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” It goes on: Roy Milton rocks the house on two cuts; alto sax innovator Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson blows up a storm on his hit, “Kidney Stew”; Pee Wee Crayton launches into a raging “The Things I Used to Do.” Can’t beat this one, no matter how fine an effort is made on The New Johnny Otis Show, which is primarily a showcase for Shuggie Otis, minus artists of the caliber of those on Live at Monterey! There’s still plenty of fire and feeling in these grooves, but the performances hardly rank with those of Turner, Hunter, Brown, Milton, et al. at Monterey.
Snatch and the Poontangs, ‘Signifyin’ Monkey,’ Parts 1 and 2
In 1992 Otis went all the way back to his roots with a loving evocation and invocation of the big-band era in Spirit of the Black Territory Bands. The title refers to the hundreds, maybe thousands, of bands that operated a scale or two below the big names like Count Basie and Duke Ellington but performed sometimes more-than-credible versions of the Count’s and the Duke’s (and others’) popular fare—the territory bands were, in effect, the tribute bands of their day, albeit with a smattering of original material dotting their repertoires. Unable to afford national tours, these groups became stars in their geographical region, or territory, and rarely ventured beyond those boundaries. Having honed his chops in a number of territory bands in the ‘30s and ‘40s before going solo, Otis here pays tribute to the bracing dance music of the era preceding R&B’s big beat explosion. Thus, Count Basie’s hard-driving “Swinging the Blues” opens the show here, followed by a smooth, loping “Margie,” with Otis’s hangdog vocal echoing as if it were reflecting off the walls of a huge ballroom. Elsewhere the band assays Duke Ellington (thrice, on the moody “The Mooch,” the evergreen “Sophisticated Lady,” and “Creole Love Call”); Count Basie twice more; gets down with some Kansas City boogie-woogie by way of Jay McShann’s “Jumpin’ the Blues,” notable for Otis’s sprightly workout on vibes and Brad “Baba” Pie’s punchy guitar solos; and, for good measure, hauls out “Harlem Nocturne” for alto saxophonist Clifford Solomon to strut his stuff on a dark, measured solo. This era may have vanished, but not its music—this is as vibrant as it gets.
Johnny Otis, ‘Can’t You Hear Me Callin’’(1957), from the retrospective The Capitol Years
Otis recorded for a staggering number of labels, and a good deal of that work is available on various import titles. Especially recommended are a pair of thorough overviews from the aforementioned Ace Records: Midnight At the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story Volume 1: 1945-57 and On With The Show: The Johnny Otis Story Volume 2: 1957-1974. Another Ace title, The Johnny Otis Show: Vintage 1950’s Broadcasts from Los Angeles, offers vintage airchecks and broadcasts of Otis’s radio shows from the 5/4 Ballroom in Watts (1954), plus a soundtrack of one of Otis’s 1958 broadcasts on KTLA, and assorted other airchecks of varying vintage, with Larry Williams, Marie Adams and The Penguins among the guests. All in all, pretty astonishing fare from a man who lived a full and fruitful life on and off the stage.
Great is Life, real and mystical, wherever and whoever;
Great is Death--sure as Life holds all parts together, Death holds all parts together.
--Walt Whitman, “Greatness”