Johnny Otis: Black by Persuasion

Tom Reney on the life and legacy of the unique R&B performer

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 in 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 vocalists he discovered in the talent contests he sponsored at The Barrelhouse, the Central Avenue nightclub he co-owned with Bardu Ali in Watts. He described his pursuit of female singers as "a holy grail quest." And beginning with Ernestine Anderson in 1945, these included the 15-year-old Little Esther, as well as Big Mama Thornton, Sugar Pie DiSanto, Linda Hopkins, Margie Evans, and Etta James (who died on January 20 at age 73). Etta's first hit, “Roll With Me Henry,” was composed and produced by Otis in 1955; three years earlier, he produced and played drums on 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 nightclub.

Here’s a 1958 performance of “Willie and the Hand Jive” from Otis’s Los Angeles television show.

And here's the entire program, complete with commercials and a couple of features for special guest Lionel Hampton.

Here’s Otis with guitarist Roy Buchanan, who says that he modeled his blues playing on Johnny’s subtle inflections as a singer.

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