ETTA JAMES, VOICE BEHIND ‘AT LAST’
Etta James in the studio in Chicago with the Chess Records founder Phil Chess, left, and the producer Ralph Bass in 1960. More Photos »
Etta James, whose powerful, versatile and emotionally direct voice could enliven the raunchiest blues as well as the subtlest love songs, most indelibly in her signature hit, “At Last,” died on Friday morning in Riverside, Calif. She was 73.
Her manager, Lupe De Leon, said that the cause was complications of leukemia. Ms. James, who died at Riverside Community Hospital, had been undergoing treatment for some time for a number of conditions, including leukemia and dementia. She also lived in Riverside.
Ms. James was not easy to pigeonhole. She is most often referred to as a rhythm and blues singer, and that is how she made her name in the 1950s with records like “Good Rockin’ Daddy.” She is in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.
She was also comfortable, and convincing, singing pop standards, as she did in 1961 with “At Last,” which was written in 1941 and originally recorded by Glenn Miller’s orchestra. And among her four Grammy Awards (including a lifetime-achievement honor in 2003) was one for best jazz vocal performance, which she won in 1995 for the album “Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday.”
Regardless of how she was categorized, she was admired. Expressing a common sentiment, Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote in 1990 that she had “one of the great voices in American popular music, with a huge range, a multiplicity of tones and vast reserves of volume.”
For all her accomplishments, Ms. James had an up-and-down career, partly because of changing audience tastes but largely because of drug problems. She developed a heroin habit in the 1960s; after she overcame it in the 1970s, she began using cocaine. She candidly described her struggles with addiction and her many trips to rehab in her autobiography, “Rage to Survive,” written with David Ritz (1995).
Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles on Jan. 25, 1938. Her mother, Dorothy Hawkins, was 14 at the time; her father was long gone, and Ms. James never knew for sure who he was, although she recalled her mother telling her that he was the celebrated pool player Rudolf Wanderone, better known as Minnesota Fats. She was reared by foster parents and moved to San Francisco with her mother when she was 12.
She began singing at the St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles at 5 and turned to secular music as a teenager, forming a vocal group with two friends. She was 15 when she made her first record, “Roll With Me Henry,” which set her own lyrics to the tune of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ recent hit “Work With Me Annie.” When some disc jockeys complained that the title was too suggestive, it was changed to “The Wallflower,” although the record itself was not.
“The Wallflower” rose to No. 2 on the rhythm-and-blues charts in 1954. As was often the case in those days with records by black performers, a toned-down version was soon recorded by a white singer and found a wider audience: Georgia Gibbs’s version, with the title and lyric changed to “Dance With Me, Henry,” was a No. 1 pop hit in 1955. (Its success was not entirely bad news for Ms. James. She shared the songwriting royalties with Mr. Ballard and the bandleader and talent scout Johnny Otis, who had arranged for her recording session. Mr. Otis died on Tuesday.)
In 1960 Ms. James was signed by Chess Records, the Chicago label that was home to Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and other leading lights of black music. She quickly had a string of hits, including “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “Trust in Me” and “At Last,” which established her as Chess’s first major female star.
She remained with Chess well into the 1970s, reappearing on the charts after a long absence in 1967 with the funky and high-spirited “Tell Mama.” In the late ’70s and early ’80s she was an opening act for the Rolling Stones.
After decades of touring, recording for various labels and drifting in and out of the public eye, Ms. James found herself in the news in 2009 after Beyoncé Knowles recorded a version of “At Last” closely modeled on hers. (Ms. Knowles played Ms. James in the 2008 movie “Cadillac Records,” a fictionalized account of the rise and fall of Chess.) Ms. Knowles also performed “At Last” at an inaugural ball for President Obama in Washington.
When the movie was released, Ms. James had kind words for Ms. Knowles’s portrayal. But in February 2009, referring specifically to the Washington performance, she told an audience, “I can’t stand Beyoncé,” and threatened to “whip” the younger singer for doing “At Last.” She later said she had been joking, but she did add that she wished she had been invited to sing the song herself for the new president.
Ms. James’s survivors include her husband of 42 years, Artis Mills; two sons, Donto and Sametto James; and four grandchildren.
Though her life had its share of troubles to the end — her husband and sons were locked in a long-running battle over control of her estate, which was resolved in her husband’s favor only weeks before her death — Ms. James said she wanted her music to transcend unhappiness rather than reflect it.
“A lot of people think the blues is depressing,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1992, “but that’s not the blues I’m singing. When I’m singing blues, I’m singing life. People that can’t stand to listen to the blues, they’ve got to be phonies.”
JOE PATERNO, LONGTIME PENN STATE COACH
People gathered around a statue of Joe Paterno on the Penn State campus after hearing of his death on Sunday. More Photos »
Published: January 22, 2012
Joe Paterno, who won more games than any other major college football coach, and who became the face of Pennsylvania State University and a symbol of integrity in collegiate athletics only to be fired during the 2011 season amid a child sexual-abuse scandal that reverberated throughout the nation, died on Sunday in State College, Pa. He was 85.
Times Topic:Joe Paterno
Joe Paterno as an associate coach at Penn State in 1965. More Photos »
His family announced his death in a statement released on Sunday morning. The cause was lung cancer, according to Mount Nittany Medical Center, where he had been treated. Paterno lived in State College.
“He died as he lived,” the family statement said. “He fought hard until the end, stayed positive, thought only of others and constantly reminded everyone of how blessed his life had been. His ambitions were far-reaching, but he never believed he had to leave this Happy Valley to achieve them. He was a man devoted to his family, his university, his players and his community.”
During his 46 years as head coach, as he paced the sidelines in his thick tinted glasses, indifferent to fashion in his white athletic socks and rolled-up baggy khaki pants, Paterno seemed as much a part of the Penn State landscape as Mount Nittany, overlooking the central Pennsylvania campus known as Happy Valley.
When Penn State defeated Illinois, 10-7, on Oct. 29, 2011, the victory was Paterno’s 409th, surpassing Eddie Robinson of Grambling for most career victories among Division I coaches. Penn State’s president at the time, Graham B. Spanier, presented Paterno with a commemorative plaque in a postgame ceremony shown on the huge scoreboard at Beaver Stadium.
It would be Paterno’s last game. Within days his former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, was indicted and arrested on multiple charges of sexually abusing young boys extending back to his time on Paterno’s staff. On Nov. 9, Paterno and Spanier were fired by the university’s board of trustees because of their failure to go to the police after they were told of an accusation against Sandusky in 2002.
Paterno’s abrupt firing at age 84 was something that could hardly have been imagined, although he had stubbornly clung to the spotlight at an age when most head coaches, whatever their renown, had retired.
He had held himself to an exceedingly high standard with what he called his “grand experiment”: fielding outstanding teams with disciplined players whose graduation rates far exceeded that at most football powers. His football program had never been tainted by a recruiting scandal. His statue stood outside Beaver Stadium alongside the legend “Educator, Coach, Humanitarian.”
Former players who succeeded in professional life far beyond the football field had told of their debt to him.
“Look how many go to medical school or law school,” said Bill Lenkaitis, a dentist in Foxborough, Mass., who played for Paterno in the 1960s and became a longtime center for the New England Patriots. “Look how many become heads of corporations.”
Many a Pennsylvania home was stocked with Paterno knickknacks: Cup of Joe coffee mugs, Stand-up Joe life-size cutouts, JoePa golf balls bearing his likeness.
Paterno and his wife, Sue, were major benefactors of Penn State, and during his nearly half-century as head coach, donors gave hundreds of millions of dollars to the university, helping to shape it into a major research institution, seemingly an outgrowth of his having made Penn State a national brand name through its football teams.
Paterno was a five-time national coach of the year. He had five unbeaten and untied teams, and he coached Penn State to the No. 1 ranking in 1982 and 1986. He took his Nittany Lions to 37 bowl games, winning 24 of them, and turned out dozens of first-team all-Americans.
On Saturday afternoons at Beaver Stadium, crowds exceeding 100,000 cheered on Nittany Lions players recruited by Paterno largely from Pennsylvania and nearby states. Many went on to stellar professional careers, among them the running backs Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell and John Cappelletti, who won the Heisman Trophy, and the linebacker Jack Ham.
JOHNNY OTIS, RHYTHM AND BLUES MUSICIAN
The Johnny Otis Orchestra, in striped jackets, with its bandleader, foreground, in California in the 1950s.
By IHSAN TAYLOR
Published: January 19, 2012
Johnny Otis, the musician, bandleader, songwriter, impresario, disc jockey and talent scout who was often called “the godfather of rhythm and blues,” died on Tuesday at his home in Altadena, Calif. He was 90.
James J. Kriegsmann, via Billy Vera Collection
Johnny Otis, center, with Mel Walker and Esther Phillips.
His death was confirmed by his manager, Terry Gould.
Leading a band in the late 1940s that combined the high musical standards of big band jazz with the raw urgency of gospel music and the blues, Mr. Otis played an important role in creating a new sound for a new audience of young urban blacks. Within a few years it would form the foundation of rock ’n’ roll.
With a keen ear for talent, he helped steer a long list of performers to stardom, among them Etta James, Jackie Wilson, Esther Phillips and Big Mama Thornton — whose hit recording of “Hound Dog,” made in 1952, four years before Elvis Presley’s, was produced by Mr. Otis and featured him on drums.
At Mr. Otis’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, Ms. James referred to him as her “guru.” (He received similar honors from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation and the Blues Foundation.)
Mr. Otis was also a political activist, a preacher, an artist, an author and even, late in life, an organic farmer. But it was in music that he left his most lasting mark.
Despite being a mover and shaker in the world of black music, Mr. Otis was not black, which as far as he was concerned was simply an accident of birth. He was immersed in African-American culture from an early age and said he considered himself “black by persuasion.”
“Genetically, I’m pure Greek,” he told The San Jose Mercury News in 1994. “Psychologically, environmentally, culturally, by choice, I’m a member of the black community.”
As a musician (he played piano and vibraphone in addition to drums) Mr. Otis can be heard on Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love,” Charles Brown’s “Drifting Blues” and other seminal rhythm and blues records, as well as on jazz recordings by Lester Young and Illinois Jacquet. As a bandleader and occasional vocalist, he had a string of rhythm and blues hits in the early 1950s and a Top 10 pop hit in 1958 with his composition “Willie and the Hand Jive,” later covered by Eric Clapton and others. His many other compositions included “Every Beat of My Heart,” a Top 10 hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1961.
As a disc jockey (he was on the radio for decades starting in the 1950s and had his own Los Angeles television show from 1954 to 1961) he helped bring black vernacular music into the American mainstream.
Johnny Otis was born John Alexander Veliotes (some sources give his first name as Ioannis) on Dec. 28, 1921, in Vallejo, Calif., the son of Greek immigrants who ran a grocery. He grew up in a predominantly black area of Berkeley. Mr. Otis began his career as a drummer in 1939. In 1945 he formed a 16-piece band and recorded his first hit, “Harlem Nocturne.”
As big bands fell out of fashion, Mr. Otis stripped the ensemble down to just a few horns and a rhythm section and stepped to the forefront of the emerging rhythm and blues scene. In 1948 he and a partner opened a nightclub, the Barrelhouse, in the Watts section of Los Angeles.
From 1950 to 1952 Mr. Otis had 15 singles on Billboard’s rhythm and blues Top 40, including “Double Crossing Blues,” which was No. 1 for nine weeks. On the strength of that success he crisscrossed the country with his California Rhythm and Blues Caravan, featuring singers like Ms. Phillips, billed as Little Esther — whom he had discovered at a talent contest at his nightclub — and Hank Ballard, who a decade later would record the original version of “The Twist,” the song that ushered in a national dance craze.
Around this time Mr. Otis became a D.J. on the Los Angeles-area radio station KFOX. He was an immediate success, and soon had his own local television show as well. He had a weekly program on the Pacifica Radio Network in California from the 1970s until 2005.
Hundreds of Mr. Otis’s radio and television shows are archived at Indiana University. In addition, he is the subject of a coming documentary film, “Every Beat of My Heart: The Johnny Otis Story,” directed by Bruce Schmiechen, and a biography, “Midnight at the Barrelhouse,” by George Lipsitz, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2010.
While he never stopped making music as long as his health allowed, Mr. Otis focused much of his attention in the 1960s on politics and the civil rights movement. He ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the California State Assembly and served on the staff of Mervyn M. Dymally, a Democratic assemblyman who later became a United States representative and California’s first black lieutenant governor.
Mr. Otis’s first book, “Listen to the Lambs” (1968), was largely a reflection on the political and social significance of the 1965 Watts riots.
In the mid-1970s Mr. Otis branched out further when he was ordained as a minister and opened the nondenominational Landmark Community Church in Los Angeles. While he acknowledged that some people attended just “to see what Reverend Hand Jive was talking about,” he took his position seriously and in his decade as pastor was involved in charitable work including feeding the homeless.
In the early 1990s he moved to Sebastopol, an agricultural town in northern California, and became an organic farmer, a career detour that he said was motivated by his concern for the environment. For several years he made and sold his own brand of apple juice in a store he opened to sell the produce he grew with his son Nick. The store doubled as a nightclub where Mr. Otis and his band performed.
Later that decade he published three more books: “Upside Your Head!: Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue” (1993), a memoir of his musical life; “Colors and Chords” (1995), a collection of his paintings, sculptures, wood carvings and cartoons (his interest in art had begun when he started sketching cartoons on his tour bus in the 1950s to amuse his band); and “Red Beans & Rice and Other Rock ’n’ Roll Recipes” (1997), a cookbook.
Mr. Otis continued to record and perform into the 21st century. His bands often included family members: his son John Jr., known as Shuggie, is a celebrated guitarist who played with him for many years, and Nick was his longtime drummer. Two grandsons, Lucky and Eric Otis, also played guitar with him.
In addition to his sons, he is survived by his wife of 70 years, the former Phyllis Walker; two daughters, Janice Johnson and Laura Johnson; nine grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren; and a great-great-grandchild.
Long after he was a force on the rhythm and blues charts, Mr. Otis was a familiar presence at blues and even jazz festivals. What people wanted to call his music, he said, was of no concern to him.
“Society wants to categorize everything, but to me it’s all African-American music,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1993. “The music isn’t just the notes, it’s the culture — the way Grandma cooked, the way Grandpa told stories, the way the kids walked and talked.”
Peter Keepnews contributed reporting.
JIMMY CASTOR, MUSICIAN WHO MASTERED MANY GENRES
Published: January 17, 2012
Jimmy Castor, a singer, instrumentalist and songwriter whose mastery of genres from doo-wop to Latin soul to funk, and instruments including saxophone and bongos earned him the title Everything Man, died on Monday in Henderson, Nev. He was 71.
The cause was heart failure, his son Jimmy Jr. said.
Mr. Castor grew up in Harlem and Washington Heights with the legendary rock ’n’ roll singer Frankie Lymon. Possessing a pure, high voice like Mr. Lymon’s, Mr. Castor often filled in for him when Mr. Lymon couldn’t make a performance with his group, the Teenagers.
Mr. Castor soon started his own group, Jimmy and the Juniors, and wrote the first song it recorded, “I Promise to Remember.” Mr. Lymon and the Teenagers made it a Top 10 rhythm-and-blues hit for themselves in the summer of 1956.
By the 1960s, Mr. Castor, an African-American, had gained recognition for his version of the Latin soul sound that emerged as Puerto Ricans joined blacks in Upper Manhattan. In 1966 he had a hit on Smash Records, “Hey Leroy, Your Mama’s Callin’ You.” The melody was calypso-inflected, the groove was Latin and the liner notes were bilingual.
With another band, the Jimmy Castor Bunch, he moved on to funk, combining a big beat with spirited storytelling on records like “Troglodyte (Cave Man)” on RCA, which hit No. 6 on the pop charts in 1972 and sold a million copies. Another hit was “The Bertha Butt Boogie” in late 1974.
Mr. Castor’s greatest influence may have come with the advent of hip-hop music and culture, when disc jockeys began using snippets of his earlier funk hits. In the 1983 movie “Flashdance” a sample of “It’s Just Begun,” the title track of his first album, was used in the break-dance “battle” scene. His work has been sampled numerous times by hip-hop artists like Kanye West, Ice Cube and Mos Def.
Richard Colon, who is professionally known as Crazy Legs and who is president of the Rock Steady Crew, a premier break-dance group that used Mr. Castor’s songs, said of Mr. Castor in an interview on Tuesday, “People have been impacted by him and don’t even know it.”
James Walter Castor was born on Jan. 23, 1940, in Manhattan. (His son said that for years he had let others assume he was far younger than he was, by as much as seven years.) After his song “I Promise to Remember” became a hit for Mr. Lymon, Mr. Castor used his windfall to move his family to a better apartment. He graduated from the High School of Music and Art, attended the City College of New York for two years majoring in accounting and minoring in music, and started another band.
While melding Latin and African-American forms in songs like “Southern Fried Frijoles,” he played bar mitzvahs for Harlem’s still-large Jewish population.
Mr. Castor made 16 albums, some for major labels like RCA and Atlantic and some for smaller labels, including several of his own. But he began having trouble finding work in the 1980s. He lived in New Jersey before moving to Nevada in 1996.
In addition to his son Jimmy Jr., Mr. Castor is survived by his wife, Sandi; another son, Jason; two daughters, April Vargas and Sheli Castor; and eight grandchildren.