Friday, January 20, 2012

Remembering Johnny Otis and His Classic Savoy recordings

The music world and fans of jazz, blues and rhythm and blues have come together to note, mourn and celebrate the life of Johnny Otis. Obituaries with details on Johnny’s life have been published in the NY Times and LA Times and more will follow. This writer has been a fan of Johnny Otis’ many faceted career for over four decades since first acquiring the Cold Shot album by The Johnny Otis Show on Kent Records. I will be providing a fuller appreciation of him in a few days, but thought it might be useful to post this review from the May/June 2000 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 245). The underlying CD box is no longer in print but can be purchased from dealers of our-of-print and used recordings. 

The release of a triple disc box set, The Johnny Otis Rhythm & Blues Caravan, The Complete Savoy Recordings is coincidental with Otis’ induction into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. The release is one of a series of reissues being produced by Atlantic, The Savoy Jazz Originals that includes also a box set of Jimmy Scott’s Savoy recordings and other classic modern jazz sessions from that pioneering label.

The seventy-seven selections on the three discs present almost 4 hours of Otis’s classic rhythm and blues. As Billy Vera, who programmed and annotated this box notes at the conclusion of his booklet notes, “Johnny Otis certainly must be listed high on any list of rhythm and blues pioneers. Along with his caravan of singers and musicians, he played a vital role in creating and nurturing one of the most vibrant musical genres of the twentieth century.”

The collection opens up with four sides Otis recorded with a Big Band for Excelsior that show his links to the Count Basie sound. The opening Harlem Nocturne was a classic slow instrumental blues that included Bill Doggett on piano, Teddy Buckner on trumpet, Paul Quinchette, and James van Streeter on tenor saxophones, and Curtis Counce on bass. A couple of sides from this session sported terrific vocals from Basie vocalist Jimmy Rushing, one of which, Jimmy’s Round the Clock, predates similar songs from Joe Turner, Otis himself and Chuck Berry. One other instrumental dates from this 1945 session and is followed by a striking 1947 instrumental, Midnight at the Barrelhouse, which finds Otis working with the smaller jump band combo and sports some electrifying guitar.

By 1949, Ralph Bass signed Otis to Savoy and started recording with smaller groups that included the wonderful pianist Devonia Williams, and the great Pete ‘Guitar’ Lewis. Otis by this time was often heard on vibes, and not drums. The basic model of his group was the pioneering, chart-topping combos of Louis Jordan and Roy Milton. Like them he had a crisp, swinging rhythm section and punching, riffing horns. He also had Pete Lewis’ slashing guitar; and vocalists including shouter Redd Lyte, The Robins, Little Esther Phillips and Mel Walker. Lyte is an able shouter on the rocking Ain’t Nothin Shakin, while Lewis turns in a nice T-Bone flavored solo on the slow Hangover Blues.

Prior to being paired with Little Esther, the Robins showed their versatility on the rocking If I Didn’t Love You So, and the sweet ballad, Rain in My Eyes. The addition of Little Esther for the classic Double Crossing Blues led to Otis first #1 recording with Savoy, and one of 11 Otis recordings to chart in 1950. A slashing instrumental like Headhunter showcased the great Pete Lewis, as did the first part of The Turkey Hop, a dance number derived from a children’s song. Otis revisited Harlem Nocturne on Blues Nocturne, with some hot Lewis guitar and deep in the groove alto sax from Floyd Turnham, while Cry Baby introduced the blues crooner Mel Walker (backed by the Robins) on a number that adapts the melody of Charles Brown’s Drifting Blues. This description of the contents of the first volume only touches on the riches to be found here.

The second disc opens with four items featuring the Robins who parted from Otis after a dispute with the Robins’ management. I’m Living OK may not have charted, but this rocker featuring the group’s bass vocalist sports fine playing from Otis and Lewis. There Ain’t No Use Begging is a slow ballad featuring Bobby Nunn, while their last recording, You’re Fine But Not My Kind is a medium tempo blues with some fine vibes from Otis. Little Esther and Mel Walker developed into Otis’ prime vocalists. Their duets featured playful banter between the singers and Deceivin’ Blues, Cupid’s Boogie, Wedding Boogie and Faraway Christmas Blues (the latter two with Lee Graves added) proved quite popular. The second disc concludes with a couple vocals by gospel singer Mary DeLoatch who recorded as Marilyn Scott and produced a nice coupling including a hot Beer Bottle Boogie where Otis is heard on drums and features terrific piano from Devonia Williams and a tenor solo by Lorenzo Holden.

By the time of the Disc Three recordings, Little Esther had been signed by Ralph Bass to Federal, so Mel Walker becomes even more prominent on the vocals. A title like Gee Baby, which reached #2 on the charts with a larger band sports very nice muted trumpet and trombone along with some apt tenor fills and a vocal that suggests a Charles Brown influence. Pete Lewis evokes T-Bone Walker’s Stormy Monday on the intro to Redd Lyte’s Gonna Take a Train. Linda Hopkins made some of her earliest recordings with Otis, and her Doggin’ Blues shows that even then she was a powerful singer.

Mambo Boogie was a hit for Otis and his band as they took advantage of the mambo craze of the time, while Otis’s first vocal, All Nite Long, also was one of 15 Savoy recordings to crack the Billboard charts. One previously unissued selection is the theme for Hunter Hancock’s Harlem Matinee radio show and illustrates all the musical bases that Otis covered in less than two minutes, with snippets of Harlem Nocturne and Jumping at the Woodside included along with a nice boogie woogie segment.

This is a class production. The booklet by Billy Vera provides his usual literate and thoughtful consideration of the artist and the music. Otis himself contributed the painting that serves as the cover for the booklet and the box. While much of this has been issued over the years, I do not know how much was available on compact disc. I believe most of Disc 1 was previously available, but this becomes the recommended collection of Otis’ Savoy recordings, not simply because it is so complete, but because it is so good and influential.

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