LOS ANGELES (AP) — Johnny Otis, who wrote and recorded the R&B classic “Willie and the Hand Jive,” died Jan. 17, 2012. He was 90.
Otis, who was white, was born John Veliotes to Greek immigrants and grew up in a black section of Berkeley, where he said he identified far more with black culture than his own. As a teenager, he changed his name because he thought Johnny Otis sounded more black.
Otis launched his professional music career at 18 as drummer — although he’d never played the drums —for barrelhouse pianist Count Otis Matthews. By 1945, Otis was leading his own band when he scored his first big hit, “Harlem Nocturne.” In 1950, 10 of his songs made Billboard Magazine’s R&B chart. His “Willie and the Hand Jive” sold more than 1.5 million copies and was covered years later by Eric Clapton. He later wrote “Every Beat of My Heart,” which was a hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips.
Otis also recognized and promoted talent, including Etta James, Hank Ballard, Big Mama Thornton and The Robins, the group that evolved into The Coasters. He produced Thornton’s original recording of “Hound Dog,” a song that later became an even bigger hit for Elvis Presley.
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Etta James, 73, the feisty R&B singer whose raw, passionate vocals anchored many hits and made the yearning ballad “At Last” an enduring anthem, died Jan. 20, 2012. The four-time Grammy winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee had been suffering from dementia and kidney problems and was battling leukemia.
It was her jazz-inflected rendition of the 1941 standard “At Last” that defined her and made her legendary. The tender, sweet song belied the turmoil that James — born Jamesetta Hawkins — endured for much of her life. Her mother was a fleeting presence in her life during her youth. She never knew her father, although she had been told that he was billiards player Minnesota Fats.
In the early 1950s, bandleader Johnny Otis found James on a San Francisco street corner with a couple of girlfriends, singing “Roll With Me, Henry,” a reply song to Hank Ballard and The Midnighters’ “Work With Me, Annie.” The song’s suggestive title was changed to “The Wallflower” to get airplay.
In 1959, James signed with Chicago’s legendary Chess label. She recorded a string of hits in the late 1950s and ’60s, including “Trust In Me,” “Something’s Got a Hold On Me,” “Sunday Kind of Love,” “All I Could Do Was Cry” and “At Last.” In 1967, she cut the acclaimed soul album “Tell Mama,” which yielded the 1968 Top-40 single “Security.”
A lengthy heroin addiction led to a harrowing existence for James, including time behind bars. In 1984, the now-clean James got a career boost when she was asked to sing the national anthem at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. In the late 1980s, she fought addiction again — this time for painkillers. She also struggled with her weight, performing from a wheelchair as she got older. She had weight-loss surgery and lost 200 pounds.
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Jimmy Castor, 71, a New York funk and soul saxophonist, singer and songwriter best known for “It’s Just Begun” and “Troglodyte,” died Jan. 16, 2012. Castor’s work was sampled more than 3,000 times by artists including N.W.A., 2 Live Crew, Kanye West, Ice Cube and Madonna.
NEW YORK (AP) — Fred Milano, 72, who rose to fame as a member of Dion and the Belmonts, died Jan. 1, 2012.
Family and friends say Milano, who had participated in every Belmonts recording session dating back 54 years, was diagnosed with lung cancer three weeks before his death.
The original Belmonts — Milano, Angelo D’Aleo and Carlo Mastrangelo — took their name from Belmont Avenue in the Bronx, the street where the members grew up. The group first recorded for Mohawk Records in 1957. Paired soon after with Dion DiMucci, who became the quartet’s lead singer, Dion and the Belmonts scored hits with songs including “I Wonder Why,” “A Teenager in Love,” “Where Or When,” “No One Knows” and “That’s My Desire.” The group continued performing after Dion left in 1960. Milano recorded with the group on all of its later hits including “Tell Me Why,” “Come On Little Angel,” “We Belong Together” and “I Confess,” as well as the critically acclaimed 1972 a cappella album, “Cigars, Acappella, Candy.”
Dion and the original Belmonts reunited to record a studio album in 1966 and a live concert disc in 1972.
Milano and D’Aleo, along with Dan Elliot and Warren Gradus, remained active as The Belmonts on the touring oldies circuit. The group released the Christmas single “The Bell That Couldn’t Jingle” in 2009 and “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” in 2010.
— Todd Baptista, with assistance from NY1-Bronx and The Belmonts’ producer Gerry Granahan.
LONDON (AP) — Bob Weston, 64, a British guitarist who played with Fleetwood Mac, has died.
Weston’s body was found in his north London home on Jan. 3, 2012. An autopsy revealed the causes of death as gastric intestinal hemorrhage, cirrhosis of the liver and throat problems.
Weston joined Fleetwood Mac in 1972, replacing Danny Kirwan. He played on the albums “Penguin” and “Mystery to Me” before leaving the band. Weston released several solo albums and played with musicians including Long John Baldry, Sandy Denny and Steve Marriott.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Robert Dickey, 72, a guitarist and singer, died Dec. 29, 2011.
Dickey began his musical career during the ‘60s and spent time touring with various soul and R&B singers such as Otis Redding.
He teamed up with his cousin, James Purify, to form James & Bobby Purify, and the duo scored a Top 10 hit in fall 1966 with “I’m Your Puppet.” The group has also had a hit with a rendition of “Shake Your Tail Feather.”
LAS VEGAS — Ed Roman, 61, a guitar-maker for the stars, died Dec. 14, 2011, following an illness.
Roman’s guitars found their way into the hands of everyone from Ted Nugent to Eric Burdon of The Animals and John Entwistle of The Who. Inspired by The Ventures, he started playing guitar as a youth in Stamford, Conn. He worked on motorcycles before turning to guitar building in 1976.
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Sam Rivers, 88, a jazz musician who played with Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, died Dec. 26, 2011, from pneumonia.
The Oklahoma native was a saxophonist, flutist and composer. He started his career in Boston, where he performed with Herb Pomeroy’s big band in an ensemble that included future music producer Quincy Jones. In 1964, he moved to New York and was hired by Davis. He played with a diverse group of musicians there that included Gillespie, T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker.
VISALIA, Calif. (AP) — Sean Bonniwell, 71, lead singer of the ’60s Los Angeles garage-punk band Music Machine, died of lung cancer Dec. 20, 2011.
The band started out as the Ragamuffins in 1965, but soon became known as Music Machine because of its energetic performing style. It released one album, “(Turn On) The Music Machine,” which featured the 1966 hit single “Talk Talk.”
By 1967, the group began to break up.