The last three weeks were a very bad time for soul, R&B and Blues fans. On January 20th, Etta James lost her battle with leukemia and passed away. She was one fo the greatest soul singers I have ever seen, having the ability to rock out with the best of them, and then change tempo to sing some of the most beautiful ballads in popular music (At Last). I photographed her many times, including the concert that made up the bulk of the Chuck Berry story “Hail Hail Rock and Roll.”
She got her start as the lead singer of the Peaches, who were discovered and nurtured by Johnny Otis and went out on many tours that he packaged and promoted.
Ironically, Johnny Otis passed away three days before Etta. He was a Los Angeles talent scout, producer and musician, who nurtured acts such as Jackie Wilson and Etta. He introduced Lieber and Stoller to Big Mama Thornton. They went home that night and wrote “Hound Dog” which Johnny Otis produced and played drums on. Although he was white, he traveled through the South and stayed in segregated hotels with his black tour mates as a show of solidarity.
Finally, on January 31st, Don Cornelius took his own life in Los Angeles. He was 75 years old, and contributed to the acceptance of black musicians by the white listening audience by producing “Soul Train”, the longest running syndicated show in television history. Last September 5th, the City of Chicago produced a concert celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Soul Train. I spent much of the day with Don, who couldn’t have been more charming. The music was fantastic, the audience blown away by the talent on stage. Don seemed very touched when he was told on stage that a street was being named after him, and was presented with a street sign from that street. It is sad that his life spiraled out of control in five months that he took his own life. He will be missed. As he used to say:
LOVE, PEACE, AND SOUL. Good night.