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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.

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