This is another very welcome instalment in Ray Topping's trawl through the files of Johnny Otis' Dig label.
Otis is one of the true giants of Rhythm and Blues, with a career as bandleader, club and label owner, producer and performer, covering most of the post-war years. Amongst black west coast musicians and the public, his reputation brought him unrivalled 'street-cred' - literally so when, recognised as 'Johnny Otis - Soul Brother', he was one of the few whites afforded free passage behind the barricades during the Watts riots.
In 1956-57, nestling chronologically between his spell with Don Robey's Peacock label and his commercial success as a rock'n'roller for Capitol, came this productive and satisfying period with his own label. Otis originally envisaged Dig as a singles label and, indeed, put out a number of well-received offerings, notably regional hits for his long-standing vocalist Mel Williams. It emerged more as a showcase for his performing band, the cornerstone of its releases being Rock'n'Roll Hit Parade (Dig LP 104), which provides the basis of this release.
This album, tagged 'Volume 1', thus maddening collectors for decades, (and unlike the numerous dime-store, anonymous compilations so prevalent at the time, which cashed-in on current hits), was probably a good representative cross-section of the band's current repertoire, comprising some of the most enduring R&B 'crossover' hits of the previous half-decade. This no doubt provided a useful promotional aid for the band, with Johnny's burgeoning TV career, so, quality still important, the result was a bunch of solid and musicianly re-workings which stand up alongside any of the songs' many contemporary covers.
To the original album tracks, Ray has added a couple of singles - cult instrumental The Midnight Creeper Parts 1 & 2 (Dig 122) and both sides of Mel Williams' hit All Through The Night (Dig 128), as well as nine unissued sides featuring his repertory company of LA's finest, including Jimmy Nolen's guitar, Jackie Kelso's sax and a vocal group The Jayos ('J.O', geddit) which included vocalists Williams and Arthur Lee Maye, but also the likes of Jesse Belvin, Richard Berry and Otis himself.
Best of the new tracks are probably by Jeannie Barnes, whom Otis had recorded for Savoy, belting out two Faye Adams and Ruth Brown originals. Astonishingly unissued - and (dare we hope) still not the only ones?
by Brian Smith