|Otis (center) with Mel Walker and Little Esther Phillips|
Over time, Otis reduced his band's size and began recruiting singers. Among his discoveries were sax man Big Jay McNeely, the vocal group, the Robins (who later became the Coasters), Mel Walker, and the teenage singer Little Esther Phillips, who won one of the Barrelhouse's talent shows. That band became known as the California Rhythm & Blues Caravan and enjoyed a lot of success for the rest of the 1940's. Otis had TEN Top 10 hits in 1949. He also expanded his musical repertoire to include piano and vibraphone.
After 1950, Otis' own impact on the charts began to decrease, but his band continued to back some successful musicians (including Big Mama Thornton on her hit, "Hound Dog") and he became a highly successful talent scout, discovering legendary acts like Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, Little Willie John....and Etta James.
James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938. Her mother was 14 years old at the time and James never knew her father, but she speculated that it might be the pool player Minnesota Fats. Her mother was rarely around either, so she was raised by several different people, including her grandparents, who took her to church regularly. At the age of five, she became a soloist with the choir and even appeared with them on several radio shows. When she was twelve, she ended up living with her mother in San Francisco, with little adult supervision, and started getting into trouble. Still, her love for music prevailed and, with two of her friends, she formed a group called the Creolettes. It was during this time that Jamesetta Hawkins crossed paths with Johnny Otis.
Stories vary on how the two actually met, but Otis took the group under his wing, changing Jamesetta's name to Etta James and the group to the Peaches, and got them a deal with Modern Records, where they recorded "Roll With Me, Henry," an answer song to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie." The song was later released as "Dance With Me, Henry," due to the suggestiveness of the original title. The song hit #1 on the R&B chart, but was quickly covered by pop singer Georgia Gibbs, under the title "The Wallflower." Gibbs' version hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, which infuriated James.
After a brief absence from the charts, James returned with an R&B focus that resulted in two of her biggest hits, "Tell Mama" and "I'd Rather Go Blind." She continued to record with Chess until the late 70's, branching out into rock and funk on several of her later recordings. During this time, she struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism and basically dropped off the scene for nearly a decade.
Etta James leaves behind a huge fan base, many of whom only found out about her in recent years and have backtracked to discover her incredible early body of work. However, Johnny Otis, the man who started her on her path, though largely working behind the scenes since the 1960's, had an even bigger impact on the early development of modern blues and rock & roll.