Johnny Otis, born John Alexander Veliotes on Dec. 28, 1921 in Vallejo, California is one of the most influential and profoundly important figures in the history of American music, and one of the last survivors of the golden age of rhythm and blues
and the birth of rock’n’roll. He’s also one of the most interesting characters in American popular culture. Johnny Otis was and is an incomparable musician (drums/piano/vibes), producer, band leader, songwriter, talent scout, painter, sculptor (Dylan’s Malibu digs sports one of Johnny Otis’ oversize sculptures on its grounds), disc jockey, congressional aide, author, apple juice entrepreneur,preacher and more. The life of Johnny Otis should be the subject of a major biography and I cannot hope to cover more than a small portion of it here (in fact Otis has published two autobiographies, both excellent– Listen To The Lambs (W.W. Norton, 1968) and Upside our Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue (Wesleyan University Press, 1993) so I’ll just focus on my favorite recordings here.
Johnny, born of Greek immigrant parents in a largely black neighborhood of Vellejo, grew up in Berkeley where his father owned a small grocery store. At some point in his youth, taken by music and the vitality of the Afro-American ghetto life around him, Johnny decided that he would become black. With dark, swarthy Mediterranean features he could pass for something like an octaroon, but remember these were the days of Jim Crow, when being black brought more grief than benefits. (For an interesting look at the opposite side of “passing”, I suggest Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain,
Houghton Mifflen, 2000). Music became the most important thing in young Johnny’s life, and soon, having taken on the surname Otis, he was pounding drums in a small, proto-rhythm and blues combo called Count Otis Mathews and House Rockers. Johnny remembered most of the set he played the beat that would later be identified with Bo Diddley (also known as “shave and a haircut/two bits”). Unfortunately Mathews never recorded.
The 1940’s was the era of the big band and caught up in the excitement caused by Count Basie and Jimmy Luncford’s outfits, Otis headed east working his way through various “territory bands” (big bands whose geographic territory ranged through the mid to south western states), playing with George Morrison’s band in Denver, Lloyd Hunter’s band in Omaha (where he’d meet life long friend and sax player extraordinaire Preston Love, and run with wild man Wynonie “Mr Blues” Harris), and Harlan Leonard and the Kansas City Rockets in Missouri. It was with the latter outfit he hit L.A. where they became the house band at the Club Alabam on Central Avenue in Watts. Soon Otis joined up with Bardu Ali’s band headlining at the Lincoln Theater, also on Central Ave. This was his last job working in somebody else’s band.
In 1945 Otis formed his own big band, eighteen pieces, and they soon recorded for Leon Rene’s Excelsior label where they had a hit with their sublime arrangement of Harlem Nocturne
They made quite a few good records before Excelsior went under including this one, a personal favorite featuring female singer Marylin Scott– Beer Bottle Boogie,
but the days of the big bands were numbered, and by 1947 jobs were getting scarce.
In 1947 along with now business partner, the aforementioned Bardu Ali, Otis opened his own nightclub, the Barrelhouse, located in L.A.’s Watts district at 106th St and Wilmington, spitting distance from Central Ave. Here Otis come in to his own as one of the all time great talent scouts, he would discover Little Esther Phillips, the Robins (who morphed into the Coasters under the tutelage of Leiber and Stoller), Etta James,
Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John (the latter three all on the same night in Detroit), as well as two of the greatest unheralded guitarists in R&B history– Pete “Guitar” Lewis and Jimmy Nolan. It’s also around this time that Otis’ discography gets a bit confusing, he would record for Modern, Savoy and its Regent subsidiary, Mercury, Peacock/Duke, Capitol, Okeh, King, as well as producing sessions for Ralph Bass at Federal (itself a subsidiary of Cincinnati’s King Records), Philo, United Artists, Kent, as well as his own labels– Dig, Eldo, Blues Spectrum, Hawk Sound. He also moonlighted producing sessions for various members of his band now dubbed The Johnny Otis Show and artists as diverse as Big Mama Thorton, Johnny Ace, Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson.
It was also around this time that Otis, who had switched from playing drums (a bad seat to drive from as Iggy Pop once said) to piano, accidentally chopped off several finger tips working in his wood shop. This cost him some of his manual dexterity and he would take up the vibes as his main instrument which gave his band a direct link to the sound of the great Lionel Hampton Band, who along with Louis Jordan’s Tympani Five where the most important precursors to the coming small band rhythm and blues sound of the late 40’s and early 50’s.
Shall we now delve into said discography and see what sort of incredible nuggets
Johnny Otis left us?
Among my personal favorites, on the Regal label where he had a string of minor R&B hits we find:
These records, featuring Little Esther, male vocalist Mel Walker, and guitarist Pete “Guitar” Lewis were all good sellers on the R&B charts, especially in L.A. where Otis was packing them in nightly at the Barrelhouse. Check out Lewis’ phrasing and sensitive touch on “Hangover Blues”, you can almost hear his headache.
Pete Lewis, who was discovered at Amateur Night at the Barrel House had only been playing guitar for six months when he joined Otis’ band. He’d go on to cut solo sides for Federal including the incredible “Ooh, It’s Midnight
” (that’s Little Esther cooing),”Louisiana Hop”
, and a few vocal blues like “Chocolate Pork Chop Man
“. On this 1953 Mercury session issued under Johnny Otis’ name, Lewis trades licks with former Duke Ellington tenor sax star Ben Webster, the sound of Lewis’ distorted blues licks against Websters warm, foggy, sax tone is pure genius, and I’d say “One Nighter Blues
” is one of the greatest sides ever waxed. Lewis would eventually drink his way into the gutter, the last time Otis saw him was during the Watts riots, summer of ’66, he was living on the street as a wino.
Esther Phillips, another Otis discovery also began her solo career, as Little Esther,
on Federal with Otis moonlighting as uncredited producer on a handful of R&B sides including this one with the Dominoes, my favorite— “The Deacon Moves In”.
Another Otis discovery was fifteen year old Etta James who Otis took to the Modern label, producing her first hit “The Wallflower
” an answer song to the Midnighters’ “Work With Me Annie”, as well as such such classics as “Nobody Loves You Like Me
” (have you ever heard a bad record with the word Sputnik in it?), and “Tough Lover
By 1958 Pete Lewis had left the band and was replaced by the great Jimmy Nolen.
Here’s one of Jimmy Nolen’s best solo sides, also recorded for Federal, his version of Erkstine Hawkins’ “After Hours
” (this was Roy Buchanan’s favorite record, and as you can hear, the one he based his entire guitar style on). Nolen would stay with Otis into the early sixties before joining James Brown’s band where he would change his style, loosely choking the guitar’s neck and playing rhythm patterns with his right hand, rarely changing chords to create that “chank” style first heard on Brown’s “Out Of Sight” and “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”. Nolen played on Otis’ biggest hits, including “Willie and the Hand Jive
“, “Castin’ My Spell
” and “Crazy Country Hop
“, all done in the Bo Diddley style that Otis had been playing since his days with Count Mathews’ House Rockers.
Around 1957 Otis started the first of several labels he would found– Dig.
Dig and it’s Eldo subsidiary issued around fifty singles and one LP (the LP, covers of current rock’n’roll hits circa 1957 can be found here
) including some real gems like Preston Love’s “Wango Blues
“, Otis’ own “Groove Juice
” and “Midnight Creeper
” (the U.K. Ace label has four CD’s of issued and un-issued Dig material under the name Dapper Cats, Groovy Tunes & Hot Guitars: The Legendary Dig Masters
well worth acquiring, even buying).
From 1952-55 Otis was signed to the Houston based Peacock label (which had just acquired the Memphis based Duke label) run by black/Jewish gangster Don Robey.
Here he cut some excellent rock’n’roll sides, the best being this one– “Shake It
At Peacock he had more success as a producer/arranger, working with Big Mama Thorton whose “Hound Dog
” he produced and co-wrote (although he was later screwed out of his writer’s share by Leiber & Stoller), and other killer sides like “I Smell A Rat”
. His biggest hit for Robey, and one of R&B’s most enduring and ghostly tunes was Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love
” which hit #1 on the R&B charts in the months after Ace’s 1954 death from either Russian roulette or shot by the aforementioned Ms. Thorton, depending on whose story you believe. Sorry I can’t seem to keep to a chronological order here.
Otis was still going strong into the 1960’s, he had a minor hit with the LP Cold Shot (Kent)
and his son, guitarist Shuggie Otis would join the band, replacing Jimmy Nolen. Shuggie, who Information
LP (on Columbia) has become a major cult item among the disco/sampler/funk collector crowd, you can find it here.
Of his sixties work, perhaps his finest moment came in 1969 when Johnny, Shuggie and singer Mighty Mouth Evans recorded under the nome’ du disque Snatch & the Poontangs (Kent)
an LP of the filthiest, nastiest, most x-rated rock’n’roll of all time. It was Otis’ successful attempt to preserve the part of Afro-American folk culture sometimes called toasting or the dozens, in which traditional oral history is handed down in the most profane manner possible. Hip hop grew out of this and field recordings made in prisons in the 1940’s and 50’s uncovered a rich oral tradition of hilarious boasts and insults. My favorite track is “Hey Shine”
which tells the tale of the black ship mate Shine, the best part of the Titanic story (of course it was left out of the movie). The story of the “Signifyin’ Monkey” is told in two parts (part one
, part two
), I especially like the “true whore’s oath” section of the second part. And cuz I’m a nice guy here’s an un-issued outtake from that brilliant disc– a version of the “Dirty Dozens
” which features Johnny’s barrel house piano and vibes as well as lyrics that could make Redd Foxx blush. Otis had quite a backround in stuff like this, the Johnny Otis Show having provided the music for dozens of black comedy LP’s by Skillet & Leroy, LaWanda Page (Aunt Ester from Sanford & Son
), and others on the Laff label throughout the sixties.
Otis also hosted many radio shows both in the L.A. area and the Bay Area where he returned in the 1990’s, settling in Sebastopal, north of Frisco. Here’s his theme song
. Somewhere I have a funny tape of Frank Zappa as guest DJ, spinning classic R&B discs while Johnny tells personal antidotes about each artist. Unfortunately I don’t think I have a working cassette deck in the house, but if I get one I’ll try and post it. For a short time he had his own TV show (clips above), he was also an aide to Congressman Mervyn M. Dymally in the 1980’s (his younger brother Nick Veliotes was the U.S. ambassador to Jordan and Egypt).
Otis kept going through the 70’s and 80’s, touring occassionaly (the last time the Johnny Otis Show appeared in New York City was at Carnegie Hall in the late 80’s, I ended up meeting Johnny and Mighty Mouth Evans in the bathroom, they both laughed when I requested tunes from the Snatch & the Poontangs record). He ministered at a church he founded in Santa Rosa– the Landmark Community Baptist Church, marketed his own brand of apple juice, spend a lot of time painting (that’s one of his paintings on the cover of Upside Your Head pictured above) and doing giant sculptures of African-American images (his artwork can be seen here
), and kept himself quite busy. A visit to Johnny Otis World Website
is well worth your time.
These days Johnny is in poor health and it’s unlikely he’ll ever perform again.
Airchecks of his final radio shows can be found here
. I know it’s drag to get old and sick, but I sure hope Johnny Otis has a happy birthday, he deserves that and much, much more. If anybody alive has left the world a better place it’s been Johnny Otis.
* I noticed there’s a movie out there with Beyonce playing Etta James, that would be like Whitney Houston playing Bessie Smith. I read the non-fiction book (so bad I refuse to mention its title or author here) the flick was based on and counted 24 factual errors in the first chapter. Amazing how Hollywood always gets it wrong.