As the music scene continues to change, the world becomes even further removed from the Golden Years of real, unpasteurized music . One thing about getting older is that we have to see our heroes pass along the way. It does beat the alternative but it’s still a very sad and uncomfortable aspect of life / death to witness this …which is one reason these pages are here , as much to highlight those still with us as to remember those who have passed.
I’ve been thinking a lot of Johnny Otis in recent months. I knew he was still with us until now, but at 90 had lots of health issues and not doing a whole lot musically. Hadn’t heard from him or about him much at all. Even online searches weren’t telling us much new information. It wasn’t many years ago he seemed to be everywhere, doing lots of different things. He was a fine musicisan and recording artist but spend most of his time producing and recording others. He had a fantastic radio show on KPFA and affiliates in California to which I made a point to listen every Saturday morning. He continued to perform with updated versions of his legendary ‘caravan,’ featuring rising stars, such as Etta James, and in later years mostly older artists who never quite made the big name but who could have with a little luck, eg Barbara Morrison along with talented sons , Shuggie and Lucky.
I got to see Otis, who lived nearby in the burg of Sebastpol, an hour out of San Francisco. A quiet, liberal community, Sebastapol became home for Otis a few decades ago . It was a nice change for Otis, who grew up in then small town of Vallejo, California only to spend his formative years in the he big cities, discovering and introducing new talent such as Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke, Gladys Knight and James, and so many more.
Most interesting thing is that Otis was of Greek, Caucasian persuasion, but adopted the black culture after growing up in the diversified community of Vallejo and taking to the sounds and lifestyle around him. And he never these roots, continuing to play the small, local clubs in his later years, while providing a venue for his older, mostly black, friends, like Morrison, who couldn’t always find work in the bigger clubs.
Etta James was disocvered by Otis as a 14-year-old living in the projects of San Fransicsco. She toured with Otis’ caravan shows before going on to become one of the top R & B female singers with hits like ‘At Last’ and ‘Something’s Got A Hold On Me.’ She overcame drug and weight problems for a career lasting six decades.
Review don’t do justice to the long, full careeres of these two pioneering artsits. Perhaps none could as Otis and James ‘s lives were so long and eventful to summarize in a few paragraphs. See the recent Cadillac Man for a ‘Hollywood’ portrayal of James. Both have many albums still available, including those below. Here’s one review that did t0uch some raw nerves…