Remembering Etta James and her mentor, Johnny Otis

I've been asked a lot of dumb questions over the years, and that's fine, because I've asked my share, and they serve to balance out the universe. One of the dumbest came when, as a high school kid, I walked into the gym at Granada Hills (Calif.) High School along with my basketball teammates, who all happened to be of the African-American persuasion. A Granada Hills student who was in the gym looked at me and asked, "You'd like to be black, huh?"

I wasn't sure whether he was a racist or part of that emerging mass of wide-eyed white liberals that sprang forth in the late-1960s. It didn't really matter; the response would have been the same. I said something to the effect of, "Dude, have you seen the way black people are treated? Why would anybody who isn't black want to be black?"

To which one of my teammates interjected, "Yeah, what about Johnny Otis?"

He had me there.

Legendary singer/songwriter/bandleader/drummer/disc-jockey/TV-host Johnny Otis died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 90. Otis was a pioneer in the world of rhythm and blues that I love so much.

He was born Ioannis Alexandros Veliotes in Vallejo, Calif., and grew up in a rough part of Berkeley. Over his lifetime, he said in numerous interviews that, pretty early on in his childhood, he decided that he wanted to be black. That must have thrilled his Greek-immigrant parents. (Here's an odd fact: His younger brother, Nicholas, who decided to stay white, served as U.S. ambassador to Jordan in the 1970s and Egypt in the 1980s.)

When I was growing up in Los Angeles, the argument raged in my projects neighborhood as to whether Otis was black or white. He had a Mediterranean complexion, and he wore his close-cropped hair slicked back, bringing up the inevitable discussion of "good hair." It was one of those arguments where, even if you could prove that you were right, it wouldn't end things. Kinda like the birther thing with the hard-core Tea Party morons.

Actually, the is-he-white-or-is-he-black thing morphed into a game I used to play with my college teammates. On those long bus rides, we'd read the newspaper or The Sporting News and try to guess what color an athlete was by his name. (It was a lot harder back in the 1970s.) My trump card was that there was a white running back named Tucker Frederickson.

The only way you could rig that game today is if you could find a white guy with an apostrophe in his name.

Back in the day, Johnny Otis was everywhere in Southern California. He was a popular R&B DJ (on the radio), was a bandleader and singer famous for his song "Willie and the Hand Jive" (later covered by Eric Clapton), and had his own American Bandstand-like show on a local TV station. He also put on these big R&B extravaganzas, like the kind the Blues Brothers staged in the movie. A pickup truck would drive through the projects, with a big speaker in the bed of the truck blaring details of the upcoming show to be held at the El Monte Auditorium. It's probably my mind just playing tricks on me, but I seem to remember that every single one of his shows featured Rosie and the Originals singing "Angel Baby," the classic song in which the backup band basically grinds to a halt midway through the song, then struggles to find the 2/4 beat so the members can finish strong.

Otis is credited with helping discover future R&B stars Jackie Wilson (the singer of "Lonely Teardrops" and "Higher and Higher," whose career was cut short by a heart attack on stage at the age of 41), Little Richard and Hank Ballard (who wrote and recorded "The Twist," which later became a sensation when covered by Chubby Checker). He wrote the Gladys Knight and the Pips hit "Every Beat of My Heart" and produced Big Mama Thornton's legendary recording of "Hound Dog."

Perhaps Otis' greatest discovery was Etta James, whose single "At Last" is in the Grammy Hall of Fame. (Both James and Otis are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 1993 and 1994, respectively.) Otis wrote James' first hit, the mildly suggestive "The Wallflower," better known by its refrain, "Roll with me, Henry." It was a response song to Ballard's wildly suggestive "Work With Me, Annie."

She was born Jamesetta Hawkins to a 14-year-old unwed mother. She never knew her father, but swore to her dying day that it was legendary pool shark Minnesota Fats, on whom Jackie Gleason based his character in the movie The Hustler.

I got to see Etta James a couple of times, including in Tucson when she opened for the Rolling Stones on their 1978 Some Girls tour. (That concert is best known for a surprise appearance by then-megastar Linda Ronstadt, who joined the Stones onstage for a rousing rendition of "Tumbling Dice.")

James battled all sorts of demons throughout her life and had several rounds of rehab. Her weight once got higher than 400 pounds, forcing her to perform onstage in a wheelchair.

She also died a couple of weeks ago, just three days after her beloved mentor, Johnny Otis. Ah, but what they left behind.

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