Others have written obituaries about the late Johnny Otis. One of the best ones appeared in the New York Times and Marc Myers at his blog, jazzwax.com, had a very astute appreciation of the gentleman who was sometimes referred to as “The Godfather of Rhythm & Blues.” But Johnny Otis was so much more. Born in Northern California in a primarily African-American neighborhood, he may have been genetically of Greek ancestry, but he choose to live as an African-American. He played the spectrum of Black American Music (to use a phrase favored by Nicholas Payton), not simply Rhythm & Blues.
His musically chops may have started with Count Matthews and his Blues Band in the San Francisco Bay Area. On the recommendation of Nat King Cole and Jimmy Witherspoon, he moved to Los Angeles to play drums with Harlan Leonard and His Rockets, one of the last big bands to emerge from Kansas City. He himself was leading a big band soon after and recorded “Harlem Nocturne,” the first of a number chart topping records over his career.
He was among those who made the transition from big band to the smaller jump bands that would provider the foundation for post-war rhythm and blues. With Bradu Ali, he soon was operating “The Barrelhouse,” which would feature some of the greatest artists. And he would soon be starting his career as a talent scout, disc jockey, television host, record producer, community leader and organizer, entrepreneur, author, songwriter, recording artist, church leader and so much more.
The performers he discovered as well as those he recorded with are legion and legendary: (Little) Esther Phillips, The Robins (later the Coasters), Mel Walker, Linda Hopkins, Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, Ben Webster, Jimmy Rushing, Johnny ’Guitar’ Watson, Big Mama Thornton, Jackie Wilson, Little WIllie John, Devonia Williams, James Van Streeter, Preston Love, Big Jim Wynn, Pete ‘Guitar’ Lewis, Jimmy Nolen (guitarist on “Willie and the Hand Jive” and inventor of scratch guitar as bassist Christian McBride observed), Etta James, Delmar ‘Mighty Mouth’ Evans, Margie Evans, Jackie Payne, Charles Brown, Johnny Ace, Slim Green, Gene ‘The Mighty Flea’ Connors, Clifford Solomon, Marie Adams, Joe Fritz, Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris, Amos Milburn, Gatemouth Moore, Pee Wee Crayton, and Louis Jordan to throw a few names around.
My first conscious exposure to Otis’ music was the Kent album Cold Shot in DownBeat. That album introduced me to the singing of Mighty Mouth Evans, Johnny’s son Shuggie on guitar (displaying a facility way beyond his years) and Otis himself on piano, vibes and drums. Featured on the instrumental title track was Sugarcane Harris on violin and his performance with Otis at the time would relaunch his career. Cold Shot brought Johnny back to the fore of the blues world and led to a follow-up studio album on Epic (which I do not believe is currently available), as well as albums by Shuggie and Harris and The Johnny Otis Show Live at Monterey. This latter album was from a live Monterey Jazz Festival performance where Otis brought together Big Joe Turner, Esther Phillips, Roy Milton, Pee Wee Crayton, Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson and Ivory Joe Hunter for one of the greatest celebrations of this music ever.
Over the next thirty odd years Johnny continued to record, both with new recordings on his Blues Spectrum label by some of these pioneering legends as well as a variety of albums that covered the whole spectrum of blues and jazz. For Arhoolie, he did a loving homage to those Black Big Bands that inspired and influenced him, Spirit of the Black Territory Bands. For Alligator he produced in the early 1980s, The New Johnny Otis Show which introduced vocalists Vera Hamilton and Charles Williams as well as had plenty of Shuggie’s guitar, while Good Lovin’ Blues from 1990 had a fuller band with saxophonist Clifford Scott and vocalist Jackie Payne.
Of course, Johnny Otis was more than simply a musician. He was a painter, a community leader and social activist who also ran for political office (endorsed at the time by Dodger legend Maury Wills). He also ministered at his non-sectarian Church at which folks of any faith (even nonbelievers) were welcome and which carried out a variety of social welfare programs including a community kitchen. He was a disc jockey as well as a performer and in the late 50’s had a popular television show. In addition to recording for a variety of labels, he produced and played on recordings for Mercury-Emarcy, Duke-Peacock, Federal and Capitol Records, and later operated Dog Records. He continued in radio, even after moving back to the San Francisco area, hosting a regular show of music and interviews until the past few years.
Otis championed the pioneers of blues and Rhythm and Blues for his entire life. He conducted a series of interviews for Blues Unlimited with some of these and when he himself was interviewed, always noted the hype and publicity received by imitators and popularizers while the originals were still around. As a songwriter he contributed such classics as Every Beat Of My Heart for Gladys Knight and The Pips. He authored several books, including Listen To The Lambs which contained his reflections after the Watts Riots, and Upside Your Head!: Rhythm and Blues On Central Avenue, where he discussed the music he played such a major roll in. Otis was also a painter with some of his paintings reproduced in Colors and Chords: The Art of Johnny Otis. Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story, is George Lipsitz's excellent biography on Otis.
Otis’ musical legacy consists not only of Shuggie, but also Nicky, drummer with the Steve Edmondson-Jackie Payne Band, and Shuggie’s son, Eric Otis, who is also a guitarist as well as composer and orchestrator with works with his other grandfather, another musical legend, Gerald Wilson.
Marc Myers had several recommendations of Johnny’s recordings in his blog that I have linked above. I recommend:
The Johnny Otis Rhythm & Blues Caravan; The Complete Savoy Recordings. A 3-CD box set with 77 recordings of which I wrote: “[T]he recommended collection of Otis’ Savoy recordings, not simply because it is so complete, but because it is so good and influential. This is out-of-print but should be available
Midnight at the Barrelhouse - The Johnny Otis Story Volume 1: 1945-57. I have ordered this Ace reissue which was released a few months ago to celebrate Johnny’s 90th Birthday. It is the first of a two disc retrospective of Johnny Otis’ musical career. It includes a variety of his Savoy, Duke, Capital and Dig recordings along with big Mama Thornton’ Hound Dog as well as versions of his songs So Fine and Every Beat Of My Heart. The second volume, On With the Show - The Johnny Otis Story Volume 2: 1957-1974, is scheduled for early February release.
The Johnny Otis Show Live at Monterey. As I wrote when this was rereleased on CD in 2000, “There has been hardly anything recorded in this vein since this that has come close to equalling this good rocking time.”
Other releases of note include:
Creepin’ with the Cats. One of several albums from the English Ace label compiled from Otis’ Dig Records and includes vocalists Little Arthur Matthews and Handsome Mel Williams as well as guitarist pete ‘Guitar’ Lewis and Jimmy Nolen on a range of material that was contemporaneous with Otis’ Capitol Recordings. Another Ace reissue in this series from Otis’ Dig group of labels is Dig These Blues with selections from Al Simmons, Slim Green, Sidney maiden The Cats From Fresno and Sugarcane Harris.
Johnny Otis Show: Vintage 1950’s Broadcasts from Los Angeles. Another release from English Ace Records that captures some live location performances with Johnny and his band although with some radio ads of the time (including Maury Wills endorsement of Johnny running for assemblyman).
Cold Shot - A reissue of the album which featured a young Shuggie on guitar, vocalist Delmar Evans and Sugarcane Harris with some fine blues with highlight’s including “Country Girl,” with plenty of swagger in the performance, “Goin’ Back To LA,” a “Sweet Home Chicago” variation and the title track, a strong instrumental showcasing Harris’ violin.
Spirit Of The Black Territory Bands. The Big Band Album Otis recorded for Arhoolie may only be available today as a download. It has strong renditions of songs associated with the big bands of Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, and Jay McShann that influenced and provided inspiration for Otis.
Here is Johnny and company doing "Willie and The Hand Jive" from 1958. It is a different you tube clip than circulating the web.