Etta James and Johnny Otis: Together Again At Last
R&B pioneer Johnny Otis discovered Etta James when she was still a teenager, launching her nearly 60-year career. The two lifelong friends both died last week -- just days apart -- at the ages of 90 and 73, respectively.
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, Otis' ears perked up. “I knew instantly when I heard Etta sing in that bathroom audition that she would be a star,” Otis 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.
“That's terrific!” Otis exclaimed after hearing her belt out “Street of Dreams.” 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), 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.
“He knew what it took to make an artist,” Etta wrote of Otis in her memoirs. “He had a genius for hip names. Johnny could name a person in a minute...Johnny Otis turned the Creolettes into the Peaches. He also rechristened me. He was the one who flipped everything around.”
Now she was simply Etta James, a stage name that sounded every bit as tough as her trademark growl.