Reflecting on the Loss of R&B Greats by Eric J Lawrence

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From KCRW DJ and Music Librarian Eric J Lawrence:

Last week was a rough one for fans of classic rhythm and blues, as we learned of the passing of three greats of the genre.

Jimmy Castor died at the age of 71.  Best known for his comedic, but immanently danceable 70s hits like “Troglodyte (Cave Man)” and “The Bertha Butt Boogie (pt. 1),” Castor’s involvement in the music goes as far back as the doo-wop era (he even sang as a member of Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers).  Recognized as both a charismatic singer and a notable saxophone player, he found greatest fame as the leader of the Jimmy Castor Bunch.  Although only generating a few remaining hits after going solo in the early 80s, Castor’s legacy was further cemented through extensive sampling in the digital age, with his intoned line, “What we’re going to do right now is go back” from “Troglodyte” being a popular drop in hip-hop and DJ sets.  He passed away in Henderson, Nevada of heart failure.

On Tuesday, January 17, singer and bandleader Johnny Otis passed away here in Los Angeles at the age of 90.  Born Ioannis Veliotes to Greek immigrant parents, he immersed himself in the music scene of the 40s, working as a drummer during the Big Band era.  Finding his way to the Central Avenue area of South Los Angeles, where the intersection of jazz and blues sounds in the air kept things jumping, he quickly became a fixture on the R&B charts, with a string of Top 10 hits in the early 50s.  He became a jack of all trades, writing songs (he received a songwriting credit on “Hound Dog”), working both in radio and TV, and helping discover other artists, such as Jackie Wilson and Hank Ballard.  He has his biggest single with “Willie and the Hand Jive,” a Pop Top 10 charter and #1 hit on the R&B list, in 1958.  Later in life he worked in farming, journalism, politics and the church, all while continuing to entertain music fans with his radio show, which ended in 2006.  Check out Tom Schnabel’s terrific blog, Rhythm Planet, for his take on the life and music of Otis.

In a cruel coincidence, Etta James, a protégé of Johnny Otis, died two days later; she was 73.  Since the mid-50s, James was a powerhouse of music, dabbling in a wide range of genres, from blues and jazz, to soul and gospel, as well as pop standards, rockabilly and straight-ahead rock & roll.  Once she was signed to the Chess label in 1960, the hits began rolling in, with classics such as “All I Could Do Was Cry”, “At Last”, and “Trust in Me” all reaching the upper levels of the R&B charts.  Despite these successes, including Grammy nominations and opportunities to reach even wider audiences by opening for the Rolling Stones, by the mid 70s she had become somewhat of a forgotten artist.  A combination of changing commercial tastes and her own struggles with addiction had derailed her career.

But in the late 80s a revival was brewing, including a return to recording and culminating in a series of accolades such as induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame, as well as her receiving a Billboard R&B Founders Award and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.  Portrayed by Beyonce in the 2008 Chess Records biopic, Cadillac Records, she was once again brought before the public’s eye the following year as her hit “At Last” was featured both at Barack Obama’s inaugural ball and during Dancing with the Stars.  After a struggle with numerous medical problems, including Alzheimer’s disease and leukemia, she died on Friday, January 20.

As sad as it is to hear of the departure of our musical icons, the cruel truth is that time marches on.  The sudden loss of a young artist, say like Amy Winehouse, may feel particularly shocking, but the sting of the absence of an artist like Etta James isn’t lessened by her relative longevity.

As rock and roll approaches its seventh decade, the early pioneers are also entering their waning years.  Legends like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Wanda Jackson, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Tony Bennett, B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Roberta Flack, Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin are all entering their 70s and 80s.

Let’s take a moment and celebrate our heroes while we’ve still got them!  Who would you like to send a rousing cheer of “Hail, hail, rock ‘n’ roll” to?