Johnny Otis (1921-2012)


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Johnny Otis, an R&B renaissance man and visionary whose passion for the blues, the back beat and racial equality helped ignite a West Coast music style in the late-1940s that made rock and roll possible in the 1950s and beyond, died January 17. He was 90.

Otis' contribution to American music and his ability to unite teens of all races around the radio dial, jukebox and portable phonograph in the late 1940s and early 1950s cannot be overstated. As a musician, bandleader, singer, DJ, TV show host, music producer, fine-arts painter, columnist and author, Otis single-handedly leveraged the blues of Count Basie and Lionel Hampton into small-group combos at the very moment that independent radio and vinyl 45-rpm records began to flourish throughout the country in the early 50s.

By shrewdly mashing nearly all forms of music found largely in the Los Angeles black community in the late 1940s—including bebop, stride piano, electric blues, strip-time percussion, cool blues and jump boogie—Otis helped forge a form that became known as rhythm & blues. What made Otis particularly special is that he managed to be an agent for music and social change without processing the music for white audiences—or selling out the black artists who played and recorded it. [Photo: L.A. Times/UCLA Collection]

The period during which Otis absorbed and distilled these music forms found him virtually everywhere at once in Los Angeles. As a drummer, Otis can be heard on Stan Kenton's Opus a Dollar Three Eighty (1944), Illinois Jacquet's Flying Home (1945) and Lester Young's Jammin' With Lester (1946).

Otis also played piano, vibes and guitar, and he had little trouble finding and holding onto talent. With the rise of Hollywood as a recording center in the late '40s and early '50s, hundreds of new labels opened offices seeking blues artists who had migrated from the South to the West Coast during the war in search of factory jobs.

The rising popularity of bebop among jazz musicians as a performance art form rather than dance music by 1949 left a wide opportunity for artists willing to record R&B. The demand for such music only surged with the advent of young drivers and the availability of affordable cars with radios, particularly in Los Angeles. 

Born John Alexander Veliotes in Vallejo in Northern California inDecember 1921, Otis was white and of Greek ancestry. A product of a racially mixed neighborhood, Otis was keenly aware of ethnic bias, having grown up in California's nativist climate of the 1920s. He's quoted on the topic of racism in George Lipsitz's superb 2010 biography, Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story:

“When I was around 13, I was told very diplomatically at school by a counselor that I should associate more with whites. After that, I left and never came back to school. I never felt white."

Otis first encountered the blues when he heard records played by a next-door neighbor. When Sandy Moore, his neighbor,held parties, Otis was often outside listening. Deeply inspired by drummer Jo Jones, Otis devoured drum books until he was able to play in bands. But his last name was baffling to local black audiences and black club owners. So he changed it from Johnny Veliotes to Johnny Otis.

Otis arrived in Los Angeles in 1943 as the drummer in Harlan Leonard's band. When the orchestra's engagement at the Club Alabam [pictured in 1946] on Central Avenue ended, Otis formed his own bands that included Paul Quinichette, Art Farmer, Curtis Counce, Henry Coker and other jazz and blues musicians. He also discovered Big Jay McNeely, the first of the rock-blues saxophonists.

Saxophonist Hal McKusick [pictured] met Otis in 1945, after Hal and pianist-arranger George Handy flew to the West Coast from New York to find work after quitting Boyd Raeburn's band over the shabby treatment of saxophonist Al Cohn. Handy began arranging for Artie Shaw, and Hal found work playing casuals (parities) and jazz gigs, including three months with Otis at the Club Alabam:

“Johnny led a great band. Other than Johnny, I was the only white guy in the orchestra. We all lived at the same boarding house in Watts, a short distance from Club Alabam. Women would cook up great food for us before we walked to work—six nights a week.

“We did these insane shows with Johnny on Sundays. There were Hollywood sets on each side of the stage, with curving staircases coming down on each side. Female models would walk down during shows singing. It was wild. While I was there, the band played behind Lena Horne, Betty Roché and other singers. [Photo: Patrons at Club Alabam, circa 1945]

“The band was heavily into Basie and really cooked. I don't know who was writing the arrangements, but the charts could swing. Everyone in the band was way into the music. Johnny would be back there on the drums, playing like Papa Jo Jones. It was thrilling.

“Three months into the job I got a phone call at the Club Alabam from Johnny Mandel. He managed to track me down there. At the time, Johnny was in Boyd Raeburn's [pictured] band, which I had left months earlier with George Handy. Johnny said the band had just reached San Francisco from the East Coast. and that Boyd needed a saxophonist to take Johnny Bothwell's place. Johnny had just left the band. So I spoke with Boyd, who agreed to pay me what I wanted. But I told him I had to call him back. [Photo of Boyd Raeburn by William P. Gottlieb]

“When I got off the phone, I went to see Johnny [Otis]. I told him I had this offer from Boyd to rejoin his band. I also told Johnny how happy I was playing in his band. Johnny said, 'Take my advice: go do it.' He said Boyd's band was exciting and going places. That's how hip Johnny was. He knew then that Boyd's band was on the cutting edge musically. I'll never forget what Johnny said next. He said, 'If you don't like it there, you always have a chair here in my band.'

“Which is pretty amazing, considering Johnny was only about three years older than I was. The maturity was amazing for someone in his twenties. Johnny was completely comfortable and knew he could find new talent in a snap. Johnny was energetic, highly interested in music and tuned into the needs of the guys in the band. He commanded respect, and he got it.

“When I close my eyes and think back, I remember that Johnny had a big smile and was instantly your best friend. I would have worked in his band for nothing if he needed me to. He was a terrific friend with great advice, and I had a lot of fun playing with him and learning from him."

By the late '40s, though Otis had shelved the Basie fetish and had begun to develop a new form of dance music. Though his brand of horn-centric R&B caught on, he never became an people exploiter or music thief. Instead of directing the new music's rise, he was an integral insider, first as a musician and then as an a&r man with a gift knowing which instruments to use, which riffs to deploy and which beats to use to add sexual tension and generate adolescent excitement.

Most of all, Otis viewed the music as an invisible battering ram that could topple segregation, particularly among teens. What has been largely forgotten today is that R&B and early rock and roll were forms adapted by young radio listeners and record buyers who wanted to change their parents' and institutions' unjust hostility toward blacks, Latinos and other racial minorities.

“Otis did not follow the usual pattern that guided relations between stars and featured acts," writes Lipsitz in his Johnny Otis biography. “Instead of just paying wages to Little Esther and Jackie Kelso to be part of his operation, he made them partners in the business. He did not think of his own talents as a singer and musician as all that special. He viewed himself as a good listener, mentor, arranger and promoter in a commuter brimming with talent."

Otis led the house band at the Club Alabam during the late '40s, eventually opening his own club called the Barrelhouse in Watts. In the early '50s, Otis produced “Big Mama" Thornton's Hound Dog (1952) and Etta James' [pictured] Roll With Me Henry (1955). His cult-like status in Los Angeles by this time made him a soulful role model for composer Jerry Leiber and producer Phil Spector. Both were successfully mining black music forms and musicians for crossover potential as well as looking for strategies that could make white artists seem more soulful. 

In Etta James (1938-2012), who died on January 20, Otis found a young R&B firecracker who had all the command and conviction of Dinah Washington. Otis heard the bossy, insistent, sensual sound of James' voice and knew instantly that her voice combined with tart lyrics and a big beat would catch fire, and she did, becoming a rock and soul pioneer. 

Otis eventually started his own record label in the '50s (Dig),and in April 1958 recorded his biggest hit, Willie and the Hand Jive. His smooth, hipster-executive persona conveyed excitement and street smarts—a cool quality that was widely admired but never duplicated with authenticity.

Despite his love for the scene, Otis never became a clownish promoter like so many white rock-and-roll record and radio industry types in the '50s. Instead, he wore his passion on his sleeve and was considered an honest R&B broker, probably because he was one of the form's originators rather than an outsider scheming to capitalize on someone else's ideas. Otis continued recording, performing and appearing at music festivals until the late 1990s.

Unknown to many people is that Otis also was a superb painter with a social-humorist's eye. Many of his works are featured in the book Colors and Chords: The Art of Johnny Otis (Pomegranate). [Pictured: Man's Head, hand painted dry point, by Johnny Otis, 1988]

Several months ago I began conversations with friends of Otis' family to fly out to California to interview him. Unfortunately, his deteriorating health made such a visit impossible. I'm sorry about that. My sense is we would have had great fun. It is, however, gratifying to know that they are JazzWax readers.

A special JazzWax thanks to Terry Gould, Otis' manager and a trusted member of Otis' family. He hosts Johnny Otis' site, JohnnyOtisWorld.com.

JazzWax notes: For those who may not have made the connection (me included), multi-instrumentalist Shuggie Otis is Johnny Otis' son. Back in 2001, Shuggie released a highly imaginative and re-interpretive funk-soul album—Inspiration information (LKBP). For some reason it's not available as a download.

As for books on Johnny Otis,three gems are George Lipsitz's Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story (2010, University of Minnesota Press), and Listen to the Lambs (1968, W.W. Norton) and Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue (1993, Wesleyan)—both by Johnny Otis.

JazzWax tracks: There are dozens of CDs featuring music by Johnny Otis or produced by him. Among the best are (click on links to access Amazon)...

One of the finest Etta jamescompilations is Heart and Soul: A Retropective (Universal). Also superb is Etta James: The Chess Box (Universal).

I posted about Heart and Soul back in October.

JazzWax clips: Here's Johnny Otis with Illinois Jacquet in 1945 playing Flying Home. Dig his taunting Jo Jones style on the drums...

Here's Johnny Otis with Lester Young on It's Only a Paper Moon. Dig Otis' distinctly Los Angeles drum style, with shades of R&B already creeping through...

Here's Johnny Otis on his popular Los Angeles TV show from the 1950s...

And here's Etta James' Misty Blue from her final album released in November of last year...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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