[JPL] Reney blog: Johnny Otis: Black by Persuasion

Tom Reney tr at wfcr.org
Sat Jan 21 12:30:31 EST 2012


When segregationists urged whites to avoid listening to black music for 
fear of its irresistible appeal, they might have proffered Johnny Otis 
as Exhibit A of what they had in mind.  Early in his life, Otis, the son 
of Greek immigrants who ran a grocery store in a predominantly black 
neighborhood of Berkeley, CA, followed his black playmates into a church 
basement for a snack of milk and cookies and came out "captured" by the 
sounds and style of the music and preaching he'd heard.  He went back 
for more, of course, and as he described in his memoir, /Upside Your 
Head: Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue/, he was so moved by these 
youthful experiences that he became "black by persuasion."

Johnny Otis died on Tuesday at the age of 90.  In a nation of 
self-styled originals, he was one of the truly unique.   Otis spent his 
life immersed in the culture and society of African-Americans, and he 
related his life's story as if he were black too.  As he explained to 
Terry Gross on /Fresh Air / 
1989:  "I could not veer away [from the black community] because that's 
where I wanted to be," Otis said. "Those were my friends. That's what I 
loved. It wasn't the music that brought me to the black community. It 
was the way of life. I felt I was black."  He was also highly attuned to 
the pervasiveness of racism among whites, a matter he found insufferable 
and that he later decried in his books, radio shows, and political activism.

But it was music that gave expression to Otis's heart and soul, and the 
music was Jump Blues, the lively hybrid of big band swing, gospel and 
boogie woogie that developed in the late '30's and early '40's, and that 
Jerry Wexler later dubbed Rhythm & Blues. Otis, who played piano and 
vibes as well as drums, began his career as a drummer with Count Otis 
Matthews and the West Oakland House Rockers, then worked with Midwestern 
territory bands, including Harlan Leonard and His Rockets.  He spent one 
grand night spelling Jo Jones with Count Basie, and by the mid-'40's, 
he'd become a fixture on the Los Angeles scene, leading the house band 
at the Club Alabam and recording with Lester Young and Illinois 
Jacquet.  In 1990, he paid tribute to this era with a set of classic 
swing tunes entitled/Spirit of the Black Territory Bands/ 
; the cover was illustrated with one of his paintings.

Otis formed his own orchestra in 1945 and scored a surprise hit with 
"Harlem Nocturne" on his first session, a date featuring Basie's great 
singer Jimmy Rushing.   The decline in popularity and high cost of big 
bands forced him to break down to a smaller combo later in the decade, 
and his core group coalesced around pianist Devonia Williams; Pete 
"Guitar" Lewis, a brilliant T-Bone Walker-inspired stylist; and the 
saxophonists Big Jay McNeely and James Von Streeter, both prototypical 
"walking the bar" tenors.  But critical to the success of Otis's Rhythm 
& Blues Caravan were the singers he discovered in the talent contests he 
sponsored at the Barrelhouse, the Central Avenue nightclub he co-owned 
with Bardu Ali in Watts.  Beginning with Ernestine Anderson, these 
included the 15-year-old Little Esther (Phillips), as well as Mel Walker 
and Etta James (who died today at age 73).  Etta's first hit, "Roll With 
Me Henry," was composed and produced by Otis in 1954; two years earlier, 
he produced and played drums on Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog."  Otis 
hosted talent contests wherever he stopped, and one night in Detroit he 
discovered Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, and Little Willie John.  As he 
told Terri Gross, it came as no surprise to him that Berry Gordy found 
such a huge talent pool "right there in Detroit" when he opened Motown 
Records.  Otis's ear for talent and success on the charts earned him the 
title, "Godfather of Rhythm & Blues."

The classic Rhythm & Blues that Otis specialized in featured both 
light-hearted jump tunes and plaintive slow blues; the latter, which 
often echoed the gospel backgrounds of its singers, was especially 
popular with blacks, but as whites began to swell the market for R&B and 
figures like Bill Haley and Elvis Presley emerged as cover artists, 
demand grew for up-tempo, teen-oriented material.  Otis kept pace with 
his rock'n'roll hit "Willie and the Hand Jive," but by the early '60's, 
the combination of Motown ("The Sound of Young America") and the 
Beatles-led British invasion effectively drove classic R&B underground.  
Ironically, the blues revival that folklorists and record collectors 
fostered in the mid-60's gave short shrift to R&B, dismissing it as 
commercialized dance music while glorifying notions of authentic blues 
purity in the lineage that began in the Mississippi Delta and migrated 
north to Chicago.

Otis saw the emergence of guitar heavy blues-rock, which drew largely on 
the Delta/Chicago tradition, as another example of a watering-down 
process that had begun with white Swing bands in the '30's.  In /Upside 
Your Head/ he wrote: "Without the rich African-American culture, the 
genuine, nurtured-in-the-South, pure Black blues feeling, jazz is 
empty...The white boys think they have it..but it was, and continues to 
be, all copy-cat bullshit."  Still, he praised "a few white players who 
have the feeling [to] interpret Black music beautifully: Scott Hamilton, 
Steve Cropper, Zoot Sims, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman...but you put a 
bandstand full of whites together, and you come up with a Doc Severinson 
or a Stan Kenton band, all stiff and ungainly."  Otis also noted the 
decline in quality of black R&B vocalists, the cause of which he 
attributed to TV: "In front of the television camera, youth, beauty, and 
skillful dancing took precedence over artistry....and more and more 
singers tended to be mediocre."

Otis made very few records in the '60's, but he enjoyed at least one 
more moment of glory when he presented his Rhythm & Blues Extravaganza 
at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1970.  The concert was released on Epic 
Records and offered stirring testimony of the timeless vitality of the 
music and a dozen of its greatest exponents, among them Roy Brown, 
Esther Phillips, Eddie Cleanhead Vinson, and Big Joe Turner.   But by 
this time, Otis's interests had broadened.  He'd spent the better part 
of a decade in efforts to end segregation and redlining practices in Los 
Angeles housing.  He had also got involved in California state politics, 
a direction he pursued after the 1965 Watts riots, which he wrote a 
personalized view of in his first book/Listen to the Lambs 
In the '70's he became an ordained minister and led the Landmark 
Community Church, a congregation dedicated to serving the needy and 
homeless.  Otis acknowledged knowing little "about Heaven.  [But] I know 
about love and brotherhood, and that's enough."  Later he became an 
enterprising organic farmer, marketing his own brand of apple juice 
which he sold in a farm store that doubled, to no one's surprise, as a 

Here's a 1958 performance 
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOrQTh_Cq7U&feature=related> of "Willie 
and the Hand Jive" from Otis's Los Angeles television show.

And here's Otis with guitarist Roy Buchanan 
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuXb5v1UmEE>, who says that he modeled 
his blues playing on Johnny's subtle inflections as a singer.

Tom Reney

Jazz à la Mode
Monday-Friday 8-11 p.m.

New England Public Radio
131 County Circle
Amherst, MA 01003

tr at nepr.net

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