This was a sad week for music fans. On Tuesday, January 17, Johnny Otis passed away. Otis was one of the first musicians to bridge the color barrier and discovered and/or produced many great R&B artists including Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, and Hank Ballard. He produced and recorded with Big Mama Thornton, including playing drums on her 1953 hit “Hound Dog.” He produced R&B star Johnny Ace and signed Etta James, with whom he co-wrote her first hit, “The Wallflower” in 1955. (“The Wallflower” was later released by another artist as “Roll With Me Henry”.) Otis had his one pop hit with 1958′s “Willie and the Hand Jive,” though he’d scored 10 top 10 R&B hits in 1950 with Esther Phillips as vocalist for his California Rhythm and Blues Caravan touring show. Otis was 90 years old.
On Wednesday, January 18, country/rockabilly star Al Urban passed away at the age of 76. Urban sang rockabilly and country for the Sarg label during the 50s and continued to write through the 60s. In 1971, Charlie Pride recorded several of his songs including the hit “I’m Beginning to Believe My Own Lies.” Urban’s “Looking For Money” was a modest hit in the mid 50s and survives today as a great example of hillbilly rockabilly.
Finally, Etta James died yesterday at the age of just 71. James was inducted into each of the Blues, Rock and Roll, and Rockabilly Halls of fame. While she’s best known for her 1961 smash “At Last,” James continued to record through the years and saw success in the 90s with her albums Seven-Year-Itch and Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday, for which she earned on of her six Grammy awards. James struggled for much of her adult life with drug addictions and poor health, but is truly one of the great American musical voices of all time.
All three of these great musicians will be missed. RIP Johnny, Al, and Etta.