A Bad Week for R&B


I’m almost starting to believe those crass predictions on celebrity deaths. After the passing of two significant R&B figures earlier in the week, by both Jimmy Castor and Johnny Otis, came sad news of the third, the R&B queen Etta James.

Castor, who died Monday in in Henderson, Nev., at 71, was most widely known for his broad novelty funk hits like “Troglodyte” and “The Bertha Butt Boogie” in the early 70s. But he had been around for a decade by then, blending jazz, doo-wop and especially a Latin tinge to his sound.

Johnny Otis’ roots go much deeper, as a Greek man who became so immersed into the rhythm and blues world of African-Americans in Los Angeles, most assumed he was also black.

Otis, who died Tuesday at 90 in Altadena, Calif., began in big band world of the late 1940s, he became a key talent scout, helping the careers of Jackie Wilson, Esther Phillips and Big Mama Thornton, whose 1952 original of “Hound Dog” he produced.

He was also on a wealth of early rock ‘n’ roll classic singles from Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love” to Charles Brown’s “Drifting Blues.”

Like Castor, he will be most widely be remembered by a novelty, his hit “”Willie and the Hand Jive” – albeit one that survived generations and came with its own array of hand signals.

Etta James, who died Friday at 73 following a long battle with cancer, was also a longtime Otis collaborator. She started her career co-writing and singing “Roll with Me Henry” with him before hitting her own string of hits in the 1960s, including the killer singles “Tell Mama” and “I’d Rather Go Blind.”

Her biggest achievement may have come in overcoming a 10-year addiction to heroin in the 1970s, continuing her recording career, getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and becoming the idol of singers from Christina Aguilera to Adele.

James lived long enough to see her ballad “At Last” become something of a modern classic – a staple on singing shows like “American Idol,”, and standard enough to be the song sung (by Beyonce, who had also portrayed James in the movie “Cadillac Records”) as President Obama took his first dance at his first inaugural ball.

The music of all three artists will outlive us all.

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