Johnny Otis and Etta James: Reunited at Last

by on March 6th, 2015
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From their first meeting in 1953, the fates of Johnny Otis and Etta James seemed almost magically entwined.

Spunky little Jamesetta Hawkins, then 14 years old, was overheard rehearsing a song with her girl group The Creolettes in a San Francisco hotel bathroom. Outside the door, Johnny Otis’ ears perked up. “I knew instantly when I heard Etta sing in that bathroom audition that she would be a star,” he said decades later. “I heard the raw talent she possessed before she had developed.”

Johnny Otis – already famous for hits like “Harlem Nocturne,” “Castin’ My Spell on You,” and “Willie and the Hand Jive” – was also known as a radio disc jockey and a keen talent scout. His other discoveries included Big Mama Thornton, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Little Richard, Esther Phillips, Sugar Pie De Santo, Jackie Wilson, and Little Willie John. Now his sights were set on Jamesetta.

He insisted on taking her back to Los Angeles with him the following day, promising to put Miss Hawkins on his popular radio show and record her with his orchestra. But, as Etta recalled in her autobiography (Rage to Survive by Etta James and David Ritz, pages 46-47), his next question nearly threw her chances out the window.

“How old are you?” Otis asked the chubby blonde-haired diva-in-training.

“Eighteen.” She lied. Otis likely suspected as much, and insisted that Etta bring a note from her parents allowing him to take her on the road. Which led to another slight problem. Jamesetta’s mother Dorothy was at that very moment sitting in a jail cell on charges of prostitution. Her father? She’d never even met the man. Family legend had it he was the renowned pool shark Minnesota Fats, but he certainly wasn’t around to sign any permission slips.

Desperate to chase her dreams, Jamesetta promptly quit the ninth grade that day. She packed her suitcases and met Johnny Otis’ tour bus the next morning, forged note in hand.

Now she was simply Etta James, a stage name that sounded every bit as tough as her trademark growl.

After battling heroin addiction and serving time in jail, Etta cleaned up her act by the 1980s. She spent the next 20-plus years touring and recording relentlessly, at last amassing the industry accolades that had previously been denied her. Beyonce’ Knowles even portrayed Etta in Cadillac Records, a 2008 film based on the story of Chicago’s legendary Chess record label. (Reportedly, Etta was not impressed.)

Meanwhile, Johnny Otis – ever the renaissance man – kept right on touring with his orchestra, hosting radio and TV shows, preaching, painting, politicking and organic farming. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, one year after Etta. The two remained close friends throughout their careers, jamming together at any opportunity.

Johnny Otis died January 16 at the age of 90, preceding her in death by only four days. Etta James passed away January 20, five days shy of her 74th birthday. Perhaps Mr. Otis didn’t want to strike up his heavenly R&B revue without Miss James on lead vocals.

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