Monday, October 02, 2006:

The Roots Canal: Johnny Otis

Johnny Otis with Mel Walker -- All Night Long
Did you like that Shuggie Otis track? Try going back a generation. Shuggie's father Johnny Otis was one of the most remarkable figures in the history of R&B and rock'n'roll. You could describe him as the first white R&B star, but that wouldn't be quite right because Johnny Otis was white in skin tone only. Raised as Yannis Veliotes in Oakland, he basically decided he'd rather be black than Greek. He immersed himself in African-American music and culture, changed his name to Johnny Otis and has pretty much lived as a black man in the black community for the last 70 years.

Johnny Otis lived more lives than most of us get to dream of. He started as a jazz drummer with "territorial bands" in the late '30s and early '40s. He was a session man on such landmark recordings as Illinois Jacquet's Flyin' Home (the song that kicked off the screaming saxophone rage) and Charles Brown's Driftin' Blues. He had his own band by 1945 and his first hit with Harlem Nocturne. But he gravitated to the new rhythm and blues scene and opened the first R&B-only club, The Barrelhouse, in 1948. The club became the center of the LA R&B scene, where Johnny discovered and showcased stars like Little Esther, Etta James and Big Mama Thornton. He toured the country repeatedly with The Johnny Otis R&B Caravan. He arranged and played drums on the original Hound Dog. He started a couple of record labels. He hosted several popular R&B radio and TV shows. In the late '50s, he became a rock'n'roll star himself with Willie and the Hand Jive. By the 1960s, R&B was out of favor and Johnny turned to other endeavors with the same boundless energy. He started a chicken farm. He painted and sculpted. He got involved in politics and became Deputy Chief of Staff to a congressman. He wrote a couple of books about black music, culture and politics. He launched an R&B revival. He helped his son start his own career. He was ordained as a minister. He started a natural foods store. He still runs his own website.

Johnny's heyday was in the early 1950s. In 1950 alone, he had ten songs in Billboard's Top Ten, including three at #1 featuring Little Esther. I particularly like All Night Long, a wild early rocker featuring Mel Walker, released in 1951. You can still hear them hand-clapping on the back beat, just like Wynonie Harris' Good Rockin' Tonight.

Want to hear more? There are a zillion Johnny Otis albums out there, like The Original Johnny Otis Show and The Greatest Johnny Otis Show. For a quick introduction, try The Essential Recordings on emusic. There are also a couple of boxed sets that capture the whole era: Midnight at the Barrelhouse on emusic or The Johnny Otis R&B Caravan at Amazon. You can check out his raunchier side on Snatch & the Poontangs. Unfortunately, his 1970 R&B revival album, The Johnny Otis Show Live at Monterey, featuring comeback performances by Roy Brown, Big Joe Turner and Roy Milton along with Shuggie on lead guitar, is out of print but 14 of the 19 cuts are on iTunes.

Want to learn more? Check out this three-part bio on JammUpp, the bio on Johnny's own site, or these bios at allmusic and Wikipedia.

Bonus track: Here's a great novelty song from 1950, Wedding Boogie. It was released under the name The Johnny Otis Congregation. Little Esther plays the bride, Mel Walker the groom and Lee Graves is the preacher. Have some fun!
The Johnny Otis Congregation -- Wedding Boogie
These are a lot of fun; you can see how Shuggie would have an interest in music growing up with Johnny Otis as a father. And I love how the sirens break in. Good sense of humor.

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