I have been a news reporter for 40 years, but am a lifelong music fan. My first memory of music was as a tiny kid, as I recognized something strange in my house. A weird, uneasy feeling that I came to realize was this black round thing that my mother kept picking up and turning over (a vinyl record for those born in the CD and MP3 ages). It turned out to be the mournful wail of Luke the Drifter, Hank William's alter-ego, singing and talking his way through a record of sad songs and warnings to stay on the right path. An admonition Hank, himself, had trouble following.
The first artist I remember hearing also taught me at an early age that musicians, who can bring so much happiness, are often the saddest, most self-abusive people there are. As I got older, and continued to grow up with Hank, I found he had plenty of uplifting songs like "Hey, Good Lookin'," "Jambalaya," and "I Saw the Light." I was shocked to discover he had died at age 29. A heart attack victim in the back of a car, my mother explained, leaving out Hank's history of back pain, a broken heart and rivers of alcohol and mountains of drugs.
I tell you all that to finally get to the point: the past month or so has been tough for me, as some more of my music heroes have passed on.
On Jan. 19, Johnny Otis died at age 90. He was best known for a song he wrote and recorded at age 35, "Willie and the Hand Jive." A pioneer of rhythm and blues and rock and roll, he had to invent himself over and over - moving from big band jazz, to an R and B combo, to rock and roll. He was also, at various times, a radio D.J., an author, a minister, a politician, an organic farmer, you-name-it. But, he never stopped making music, continuing to perform with a band well into his 80s. The thing that astounded me, when I read his obituary in the Los Angles Times, was that Johnny Otis was WHITE. I knew he was light skinned, but I never knew that! Turns out Johnny Otis was born John Veliotes, a member of a poor Greek family, which ran a grocery store in a poor, African American neighborhood, and Johnny never left "the hood."
One reason I love music so much, is musicians are almost always characters with interesting stories, and you never know what they might do next. A day later, on Jan. 20, Etta James, an influential and fiery singer, died after a long illness.
Born to a 14 year-old mother, Jamesetta Hawkins was a natural, singing in a church choir in Los Angles at age 6 - as the featured singer. By age 14, she was in a doo-wop group, and discovered by a band leader named Johnny Otis (remember him?), who re-named her Etta James. While I love biographies about musicians, Etta James' story was the saddest, hardest to finish book I've ever read. While there were episodes of great triumph in James' life, there were more lows, as she came in and out of style, endured abusive relationship after abusive relationship, not to mention a lifetime of struggles with drugs and weight problems.
But she never stopped singing, and her songs "At Last," "Tell Mama," "I'd Rather Go Blind," (the list goes on and on) inspired singers of all kinds, because of her ability to sing all kinds of music, from rhythm and blues to pop standards to jazz to straight blues to country. Yeah, country. She does a killer version of "Lovesick Blues," Hank Williams' hit (remember him?).
Here the reporter in me takes over. The day she died, CBS Evening News did a short story about the "death of a legend," Etta James. It began with her singing, as a black and white photo of a young Etta filled the screen. After a few seconds, the anchorman began giving some of James' history, how she influenced so many singers over the years, including Beyonce, who met James while preparing to play her in the movie, Cadillac Records. The story ended with Beyonce singing James' everlasting classic, "At Last." Beyonce singing, not Etta James, in Etta James' obituary story.
It was the perfect example of how the news has become so celebrity centered, any opportunity to stick a current celebrity in, is the priority. I was mad at first, 'Give Etta her props!' I screamed at the television. Then, I was amused. Musicians, maybe more than movie stars, are here today and gone tomorrow. The ones I love have always been like Etta, a singer, a musician no matter what - whether they were performing in a big arena, on network television, or in a rundown bar with two drunks half-listening.
My last story is a little more inspiring. We spent New Years Eve at the Elk's Club in Cherokee Village, thanks to my friends Vanessa and Marty. Streamers, party hats, a nice steak dinner, a couple libations. But the crowd appeared to be petering out way before midnight. There were only a few of us on the dance floor, as the band ended another lifeless oldie. Then, out of the blue, a familiar guitar line broke out. I quickly realized it was one of my favorite songs, by one of my favorite artist, who the rest of the world pretty much forgot years ago. By the time the chorus hit, people were appearing out of nowhere (most running in from the smoking patio), dancing and singing along..."Give me the beat boys and free my soul/I want to get lost in your rock and roll...and drift away..." It made me happy to see so many people lost in wild abandon over Dobie Gray's big hit, "Drift Away." Few probably knew it, but Dobie Gray had died on Dec. 8 in Nashville - but his music obviously lives on. Dobie was another interesting character. A soul singer who hit it big as a youth with "The In Crowd" ("I'm in with the in crowd/I go where the in crowd goes...).
Like most singers with a first hit, he didn't stay in the "In Crowd" for long. A big follow up fell flat. He tried his hand at acting and appeared in a Los Angles production of the hippie musical, "Hair." After pursuing songwriting, Dobie Gray wound up in Nashville and, after hooking up with producer and songwriter Mentor Williams, recorded the album "Drift Away." The single was a big hit, on rock and country charts. The cover of the album was sure to surprise many who sought it out. Dobie Gray, laying in a brass bed in a log house, was a good looking black man. Except for Charlie Pride, not too many African American artists have hit high on the country charts.
Dobie continued to record and wrote songs that others recorded, and continued to perform. High times or not, he remained a musician, looking for his next inspiration. I met him at a convention once. He was a great, low key guy and, because he never married and had no children, he left much of his estate to the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. But, before he died, he took one last ride on the charts, singing on a 2003 version of his hit, "Drift Away," with Uncle Kracker. Eight years later, long off the charts and deceased, Dobie Gray was remembered again in Cherokee Village, as a bunch of people whooped it up on the dance floor, most stopping to belt out the chorus to that song of his. "Give me the beat boys..." Goodbye Johnny Otis, Etta and Dobie. You may be gone, but I can still hear you.