The careers of Johnny Otis and Etta James emphasize Duke Ellington’s often-quoted truth: There are two kinds of music—good music and the other kind. In only slightly different language, Igor Stravinsky offered the same wisdom. Otis died early this week at the age of 90, James today at 73. For decades, they made good music. Ms. James invested everything she sang with the power and sensibility of the blues. Her huge hit, Mack Gordon’s and Harry Warren’s “At Last,” was a standard ballad made popular by Glenn Miller in 1942. With the passion of her 1961 version Ms. James made it her own. In The New York Times, Peter Keepnews traces her life and music.
Maintaining a jazz core, Owens and his band freshened rhythm and blues and led the way to rock and roll. Even his slimmest works were underpinned with solid musicianship. He was an accomplished pianist, vibraphonist, drummer and singer. Most of the rockers inspired by Otis had neither his level of artistry nor the desire to achieve it. His obituary in The Los Angeles Times quoted him addressing that point:
“Today’s musicians are better technically,” Otis said in 1979, “but that’s not a virtue in itself. What’s important is the emotional impact…. Most rock or disco today doesn’t stir up anything in my heart — not the way a Picasso does, not the way the blues or gospel does.”
To read the entire article, go here.
Here’s Otis on his television program in 1959 with his biggest hit and, at the end, banter with a guest.
To see the entire half-hour program, including Otis with his band, his vocalists, a duet with Lionel Hampton, and live commercials, go here. The video struggles to get started, but it settles down after a minute or so. It’s worth the wait.
For a review of Otis’s career that puts him in just the right perspective, see the JazzWax piece that Marc Myers posted this morning.