Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Happy Birthday Etta James

Etta-James2Today is the birthday of the great R&B singer, performer and songwriter, Etta James. Californian by birth, Jamesetta Hawkins entered this world on January 25, 1938, the child of a wayward mother and a father she liked to say was the pool player, Minnesota Fats (her belief was never exactly disproved). Shipped off to live with relatives who could better care for her in San Francisco’s Fillmore District (“The Harlem of the West”), she was discovered and rechristened Etta James by Greek-American Johnny Otis. Both Otis and James created identities as specifically California blues artists that they grew into international followings. Together they cut “Roll With Me, Henry” (an answer song to Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me, Annie”) and a few more sides before she left Modern Records for her ‘60s tenure with the Chess brothers in Chicago.

Known for her hits “At Last,” “Tell Mama,” “Wang Dang Doodle” and “I’d Rather Go Blind” among many other greats, she was an inspiration to drag queens (the disco artist Sylvester learned how to party in her apartment), rock’n’rollers (most famously Janis Joplin) and anyone with a pair of ears. Etta herself was at one time inspired by the charismatic speaking of Malcolm X; she joined the Black Muslims, as a way to get clean from drugs (it was a battle she waged for the better part of her life).  As Jamesetta X, she attended Temple 15 in Atlanta where Louis Farrakhan was minister.  ”I became an honorable Elijah Muhammad Muslim…No more slave name.”  She believes her example may’ve had some influence on her friend Cassius Clay turning toward the organization, though in her case, the faith didn’t stick (she lived to tell these stories and more in her autobiography, A Rage to Survive). Often sidelined by trouble, she resurfaced in the late ’80s after appearing in the Chuck Berry tribute film, Hail, Hail Rock’n’Roll, to largely resume her career and thrive. She received awards from all quarters, from the Blues Foundation, Grammy, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. She also ultimately got to grips with her addictions. First Lady of the Blues, James passed away a few days shy of her 74th birthday in January of 2012. We miss you Etta James:  The blues just ain’t the same without you.

Above, “I’d Rather Go Blind” was written by Ellington Jordan and James, and is among her most beloved recordings. Below, Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt paid tribute to James at the 2012 Grammy Awards. Keys was also born on January 25, as was the pre-war Tennessee bluesman, Sleepy John Estes.
Read more about Etta James and Alicia Keys in Keep on Pushing

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, Keep On Pushing, Malcolm X, Rhythm & Blues, Rock Birthdays, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, Soul, video, , , , , , ,

What Makes a Legend? Solomon Burke

Solomon BurkeClassic Track: Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.” Recorded by the Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, the 13th Floor Elevators, the North Mississippi Allstars, and even the Blues Brothers, Solomon Burke used his tune to testify his message of love until the very end (he was born on March 21, 1940 in Philadelphia and died on the morning of October 10, 2010 on his way to a sold-out gig at the world famous rock club, the Paradiso in Amsterdam). Burke first hit the Top 10 R&B charts in 1961 and 1962 with “Just Out of Reach (Of My Open Arms)” which was immediately recorded by Betty Harris, and followed with the Bert Berns song, “Cry to Me”, also cut by the Rolling Stones in 1965. That year Burke scored an R&B number one with his own song, “Got to Get You Off Of My Mind.” The decades in between the ’60s and the present have in part been described by Burke as his “pits of hell,” but by the millennium he’d made a comeback: Don’t Give Up On Me was a 2002 Grammy-winning blues album featuring songs by Elvis Costello, Brian Wilson, Nick Lowe, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Tom Waits.

Career Highs: Crowned by a DJ who called him the King of Rock ‘n’ Soul in 1964, Burke took the scepter and the cape and ran with the gimmick, paying no mind to what James Brown or anyone else had to say about the title. Performing perched atop his onstage throne, Burke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. He was extraordinarily honored to have performed at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II.

Career Low: He perceived that Atlantic Records honcho Jerry Wexler stonewalled his dream project, the Soul Clan, a super-group projected to make bank and fund much-needed community-based projects in the late ’60s. Initially conceived to include Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, Redding’s death by plane crash was the first devastation. Pickett’s exit followed, which left Burke, Don Covay, Ben E. King, Arthur Conley, and Joe Tex to record a rousing single, “Soul Meeting”/”That’s How I Feel.” But when the recording budget was withdrawn, the album was filled-out with substandard tracks. “Those dreams got crushed… it shattered us,” Burke told me in 2008.

Essential Listening: Burke’s swansong Nothing’s Impossible was released in 2010; it may also be considered his masterpiece: An old-school Memphis soul recorded made in collaboration with legendary producer Willie Mitchell, they recorded it at Mitchell’s Royal Recorders, home of Al Green’s and Ann Peebles’ hits, and it got the stylized, Hi Records rhythm and sound—a fitting farewell from two soul masters.

And if you like that: Nashville (2006)  a nod to his love of country music, was produced by Buddy Miller and features duets with Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and Patty Griffin.

Quotable: “The best soul singer of all time.” – R&B Producer Jerry Wexler

This column originally appeared in Crawdaddy! October 11, 2010

Read more on Solomon Burke in Keep on Pushing

Filed under: R&B, Rhythm & Blues, Rock Birthdays, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, Solomon Burke, Soul, Soul Birthdays, video,

Money (That’s What I Want)

This piece originally ran as an Origin of Song column in Crawdaddy! in the Spring of 2010.  It’s time to play it again, man.

These unprecedented times of bail-outs and world economic crisis have me thinking a lot on money: Who’s got it, who doesn’t, how they got it, and how I can get my hands on some of it. Money. That’s what I want. Which is how I’ve come to consider the case of Barrett Strong.

Born February 5, 1941 in Hard Times, Mississippi, you know him as the songwriting partner of Norman Whitfield and all those right-on Motown hits: “War” (“Good God! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing”); “Smiling Faces Sometimes” (“They don’t tell the truth”); “Psychedelic Shack” (“That’s where it’s at”), “Cloud Nine,” (“I’m doing fine”); “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” and “Heard it Through the Grapevine.” The guys were geniuses, Songwriting Hall of Famers and all that, but, before the string of hits, he was strong out the gate:   The Beatles knew him as the guy who sang “Money (That’s What I Want).” He was the one who came up with the riff and scored the first hit record for a then-brand new little label called Tamla, and chances are you’ve heard the rest. If not, check this:

Tired of earning pennies on the dollar for writing songs for Detroit’s R&B pride, Jackie Wilson, songwriter Berry Gordy switched over to music’s business side. In competition with his sister Anna and the record label that was her namesake, he formed his own label, Tamla, his roster consisting almost entirely of kids from around the way, with a few notes from his own songbook. Distributed by Anna, by June of 1960, “Money (That’s What I Want”—written by Strong, with credit taken by Gordy and Janie Bradford and performed by Barrett Strong—was the company’s first national hit, reaching number two on the R&B charts and crossing over to the Top 40. It turned out to be as prophetic as it was strong: “Well now give me money (that’s what I want)… I wanna be free.” Not long after that, Gordy’s friend and label VP, Smokey Robinson, sold a million copies of “Shop Around” with his group the Miracles. The self-contained, family-like, black-owned business from the Motor City delivered “The Sound of Young America” to the world with its especially designed blend of pop and R&B, intended to steer the singers away from the sounds of the stratified R&B chart ghetto and into the spotlight, where American Dreams were made. Sadly, many of Motown’s own were shorted on their share of their contributions—and those details are being worked out and worked over to this very day.

Back then, people used to love the idea of made-in-America music and all that American dream stuff, especially in England, which is how the Beatles fit in: The song first showed up in their sets during their stay in Hamburg, Germany as a crash-bang encore. In the Beatles Anthology, George recalls first hearing Strong’s single in Brian Epstein’s record shop; Ringo notes they all had the same records anyway, and “Money” was likely one of them. Included on their famously rejected demo for Decca Records, it was eventually released and closed their second album, With the Beatles, alongside two more Motown songs: “Please Mr. Postman”, originally cut by the Marvellettes, and Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got A Hold On Me” (adding up to a bonus for Mr. Gordy). Listen and you’ll hear Ringo playing just a bit heavier as the band emphasizes the riffing—which is how it got to be known as one of the original hard rock songs. Perhaps it sounds quaint these days, but just listen to how they rock it, especially in the final choruses: In comparison to their songs at the time, “Money” was nuts—and people like nuts—and it was even a bump up the nut scale from “Twist and Shout.”

More on “Money” and how it came to define the Beat sound of the early ‘60s can be discovered at this quick one stop source for Beatle stuff. Additionally, the in-your-face essence of “Money (That’s What I Want)” suited John’s image as the impatient, angry, and snotty head Beatle, and earned him a rep as the group’s rocker; it was a fact that got up “the cute one” Paul’s nose since he too was capable of ripping it up, Little Richard style, as in his performance of “Long Tall Sally.”

Meanwhile, back in Dee-troit, as he famously called it in one of his songs, John Lee Hooker came out with “I Need Some Money”, the very same Barrett Strong song, releasing it the same month that Tamla was having a national hit with it, and delivering it in John Lee mostly one-chord boogie-style.

As time went on, they were doing the “Money” dance in London (the Who and Led Zeppelin), up in Washington state (Pearl Jam and the Sonics), and don’t forget the motor city—where there was dancing in the streets to versions by Strong’s Motown labelmates the Supremes and Junior Walker and the All Stars.

In the ‘70s, it became cool to bad-rap greenbacks—something to do with the cynicism of the decade’s great recession, which was—as surely you remember or perhaps as you’ve heard—the worst since the Great Depression (ha!). In 1973, Pink Floyd went Biblical with it: (“Money is the root of all evil”) in their “Money”, with its cash register ka-ching sound effects. And oh, the sarcasm: “New car, caviar, four-star daydream, think I’ll buy me a football team.” So, too, to the Bible did go, the  O’Jays (“I know that money is the root of all evil”) when they Gamble and Huff-ed their way through “For the Love of Money,” an anti-song to the “lean, mean green,” also from 1973.  A couple of years later, still suffering from the post-recession-boho-blues, Patti Smith wrote about dreaming of winning lotteries and robbing banks in “Free Money.” Even Abba took the rich man to task in “Money, Money, Money.”

But by 1979, memory of the oil crisis and resulting ecological awareness that marked the ‘70s was starting to fade and money madness was coming back in style. The spirit of Gordy and Strong’s song came back in an ultra-cynical form as performed by the Flying Lizards, with a version that bridged the gap between punk rock desperation and the go-go ‘80s. Of all the renditions, it seems to be the one that enjoys the most spins today, turning up in movies and on television. The usages, as they say in the business, all generate a lot of green for Gordy. From then until now, there were plenty of money-positive songs going around, songs about material girls in the material world, and tough guys getting paid in full, making bank. I personally liked “Gimme Some Money,” Spinal Tap’s send-up of “Money (That’s What I Want).”

Sometimes I regret not boarding the gravy train, but most days I’m happy to feel like Paul McCartney did (‘til he became rich) when he supposedly wrote “Can’t Buy Me Love”, to counter the cash-grabby “Money (That’s What I Want).” But when times are hard, who doesn’t like to dream about free money? So try saying it out loud with me: “Money (That’s What I Want).” It worked for Berry Gordy and Barrett Strong, the Flying Lizards and the Beatles. Say it again: “Money (That’s What I Want).” I like to tell myself, like Swamp Dogg says, “I’m not selling out, I’m buying in.”  So say it, one more time y’all: “Money (That’s What I Want).” I think I like the sound of that tune.

Filed under: Rhythm & Blues, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, Swamp Dogg, , , , , , , , , ,

Etta James: 1938-2012

R&B legend Etta James, who would’ve turned  74 in a couple of days, has passed away after a long battle with leukemia complicated by dementia. Discovered by Johnny Otis (he was the one who rechristened Jamesetta Hawkins, Etta James), she was brought closer to the mainstream by Leonard Chess, and remained in her lifetime the First Lady of the Blues.  James was known for her hits “At Last,” “Tell Mama,” “Wang Dang Doodle” and “I’d Rather Go Blind” among many other greats, as well as for her struggle with drug addiction.  Inspired by Malcolm X, she joined the Black Muslims, as a way to get clean.  As Jamesetta X, she attended Temple 15 in Atlanta where Louis Farrakhan was minister.  “I became an honorable Elijah Muhammad Muslim…No more slave name.”  She believes her example may’ve had some influence on Cassius Clay turning toward the organization, though in her case, the faith didn’t stick.  She lived to tell these stories and more in her autobiography, A Rage to Survive.  Following a near decade sidelined by trouble, she resurfaced in the late ’80s after appearing in the Chuck Berry tribute film, Hail, Hail Rock’n’Roll, to largely resume her career and receive awards from all quarters, from the Blues Foundation, Grammy and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, for her contribution to early rock’n’roll.

Sadly, Ms. James’ final months were disquieted by family finance trouble and a lawsuit pending between her husband, Artis Mills, and her son, Donto James (which was reportedly settled before her passing). She also made headlines in recent years when while falling ill she was still touring, performing, and calling out Beyonce (the singer had portrayed her in Cadillac Records, though it wasn’t the celluloid portrayal of her that the blues diva minded so much—in fact she went on the record as quite liking it). James didn’t like it when Mrs. Jay-Z went and performed the James signature song, “At Last”, for the President and Mrs. O at the inaugural festivities, though she eventually came clean about the hurt feelings behind being excluded from the inaugural ball proceedings.  Truth be told, James would’ve had to have had to considerably clean-up her NC-17 stage show for a G-rated White House appearance, as even in her early ’70s, the blueswoman walked the razor’s edge. Ms. James has been in my thoughts this past year, and especially in the last day since her early mentor Johnny Otis’ passing; my condolences to the James-Mills families, friends and fans.  Here she is one more time, with Robert Cray, Johnnie Johnson, and Keith Richards, singing Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Gal”.

More on Etta James, her relationship to early rock’n’roll, and her experience with the Nation of Islam in Keep on Pushing.


Filed under: Blues, Keep On Pushing, Rhythm & Blues, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , , , ,

Johnny Otis: 1921-2012

Johnny Otis, the great bandleader, writer/performer/producer, nurturer of musical talent, political activist, broadcaster, preacher, visual artist, and apple grower has died.  He was 90 years old.

Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes was born to Greek immigrant parents in Vallejo, California, and grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Berkeley.  It was Nat “King” Cole and Jimmy Witherspoon who suggested that he relocate to Los Angeles where he joined up with Harlan Leonard’s Kansas City Rockers, the house band at the Club Alabam on Central Avenue; from there, his career as a bandleader began in earnest. He hit with a version of “Harlem Nocturne” and took his California Rhythm & Blues Caravan on the road, bringing his revue to Black America.  Known to some as “The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues,” what Otis gave to rock’n’soul as a DJ, producer, writer and advocate of African American culture is incalculable:  He produced Big Mama Thornton and the original version of “Hound Dog”; he was an early discoverer of Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Little Willie John, whom he noticed at a Detroit talent show.  He gave early breaks to Little Esther  Phillips and Etta James (he produced “Roll With Me, Henry”, her answer song to Ballard’s “Work With Me, Annie”) and produced some early takes by Little Richard.  He played on and produced “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace and wrote “So Fine” and “Willie and the Hand Jive.”  He nurtured artists from Jackie Payne and Sugar Pie DeSanto as well his son Shuggie Otis, and his grandson Lucky Otis.  He remained devoted to R&B throughout his lifetime, promoting it on his public radio broadcast, The Johnny Otis Show, on which he also spoke out about the issues he was passionate about—chiefly poverty and racism. “The fact that so many human beings in American are without adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or hope for the future constitutes a national disgrace,” he wrote in 1993.  “I fear that as more of our country’s wealth is concentrated into fewer hands and American corporate fascism becomes more entrenched, the shame in the streets will grow.”

Otis lived his life if not passing then certainly living more comfortably among blacks, participating in the struggle for equality in the early ‘60s, and becoming adept at his own political and spiritual speechifying. His first book, Listen to the Lambs concerned the Watts riots of 1965.  Influenced early on by Minister Malcolm X, Otis ultimately entered politics working as Deputy Chief of Staff to Mervyn M. Dymally, a lifelong California politician. Otis also started his own churches, the Landmark Church in Los Angeles, turned Landmark Community Gospel Church in Santa Rosa: All were welcome.  “The most meaningful activity at our church was feeding homeless people,” Otis wrote.

Otis was also a visual artist with paintings, carvings and sculptures to his credit; believe it or not, he also marketed a line of apple juice, made from apples grown at his Sebastopol farm. Splitting his life between his native Nor Cal and his adopted Southern California homes, he died in Los Angeles, leaving his wife of 60 years, Phyllis, and an entire extended Otis clan.  My condolences to all of them, and to all those who loved him: “Rock Steady”, Mr. Otis, and thank you.

Johnny Otis is among the artists whose stories contribute to the rich history of where music meets social and political activism.  Read more about Otis and others like him in Keep on Pushing.  He told his own story in Upside the Head!  Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue, available through his website.

Filed under: Keep On Pushing, Rhythm & Blues, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , , ,

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