Soul Serenade: Etta, Johnny, and Jimmy
Man it was one lousy week for fans of soul, rhythm & blues, and funk, and the world of music in general last week. Three more giants of their respective genres were lost in the course of a few days and as I always seem compelled to point out, they are not replaceable. Sadly, as time goes on we can expect to lose more and more of our favorite musicians, especially those who rose to fame in the ’50s and ’60s. That generation, of which I am a part, is aging rapidly and the list of those we have lost already is staggering.
Etta James died last week. She was one of the most dynamic singers that popular music has ever known. Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, her first moment in the spotlight came with a group called the Creolettes, who later became the Peaches. They recorded an “answer” song to Hank Ballard’s hit “Work With Me Annie” called “Roll With Me Henry,” (the title was changed to “Dance With Me Henry” to avoid the censors), and had a hit of their own 1955.
Etta left the Peaches and had an R&B hit with “Good Rockin’ Daddy,” but had trouble finding a follow up. Then she signed with Chess Records and entered into a personal and professional relationship with Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows. The hit singles started coming with “All I Could Do Was Cry” reaching #2 on the R&B chart in 1960. That same year, Etta released her debut album At Last! When the title track was released as a single in January, 1961 Etta’s legend was assured. The song hit #2 on the R&B chart, and crossed over to a #47 spot on the Billboard Hot 100.
There were lesser hits over the next fews year, but in 1967 Etta had another smash with a song co-written by Clarence Carter called “Tell Mama.” The single was recorded at the renowned FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and the B-side, “I’d Rather Go Blind”, was no slouch either.
Etta never quite reached that level of success again, which is not to say that there weren’t more hits. She remained a hugely popular artist through the ’70s and beyond. In the late ’80s she appeared in the Chuck Berry documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. She signed to Island Records and released a pair of albums, Seven Year Itch and Stickin’ To My Guns, recorded at FAME and produced by Barry Beckett. Etta was back, and she never really left again until last week.
Etta was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. The following year she co-authored her autobiography, Rage To Survive, with David Ritz. The book chronicled not only her music career, but also her extraordinarily difficult personal life. 2003 brought a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and two years later she received a Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy for Let’s Roll.
I was privileged to have seen Etta James perform several times over the years, including once as an opening act for the Rolling Stones. That is usually an impossible slot for an artist, but Etta was at her inimitable best that night and made it work.
Johnny Otis also died last week. In an odd twist of fate, it was Otis who had discovered Etta James in the early ’50s. Johnny was born to Greek immigrant parents but chose to spend his life as a part of the African American community. After starting out as a drummer in swing bands, he had a string of hits for Savoy Records in the late ’40s. “Double Crossing Blues,” “Mistrustin’ Blues,” and “Cupid Boogie all hit #1 on the R&B chart.
Otis moved on to Mercury Records in 1951. While there he discovered Etta James, and produced the original version of Lieber & Stoller’s “Hound Dog” for Big Mama Thornton. While working as an A&R man for King Records, Otis discovered Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, and Little Willie John. Johnny started Dig Records in 1955, and in 1958 he released his best known record, “Willie and the Hand Jive.” The song reached #9 on the pop chart and has been covered numerous times over the years. The Johnny Otis Show stayed out on the road through the ’90s.
In 1994, Johnny was admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a non-performer, based on his achievements as a songwriter and producer.
Jimmy Castor died last week. Jimmy was what you might call a Funkmeister. He started out singing in doo-wop groups, and actually replaced Frankie Lyman in the Teenagers. Then he switched roles to sax player in 1960.
In 1966, Jimmy had a hit for Smash Records with “Hey Leroy, Your Mama’s Callin’ You,” and played sax on Dave “Baby” Cortez’ hit “Rinky Dink.” In 1972 Jimmy formed the Jimmy Castor bunch, and they signed with RCA. That year, “Trogolodyte (Cave Man)” was a big hit for the group, peaking at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100, and staying on the chart for 14 weeks.
Even if you are somehow not familiar with Jimmy’s original recordings, you have heard them. His music has been sampled over and over by hip-hop artists, and used in numerous films.