Johnny Otis has turned his hand to an amazing number of contrasting musical pursuits over a career spanning more than half a century. Bandleader, record producer, talent scout, label owner, night club manager, DJ, TV variety show host, author, R&B pioneer and rock and roll star - Otis has fitted all those descriptions and quite a few more. Not bad for a Greek-American who loved jazz and R&B so fervently that he adopted the black American culture as his own. His labels Dig, and its subsidiary, Eldo, have been subject to a comprehensive reissue programme, highlighting the entrepreneur's musical sensibilities. Now reaching its fifth volume, this is the second in the series featuring vocal groups. It also covers vocalists who are accompanied by uncredited backing groups. Many of these are previously unissued titles.
In his role as a bandleader, Johnny Otis used singers like Mel Walker, Redd Lyte, Little Esther and a vocal group, the Robins, who worked on many of his Savoy recordings. Later he recorded groups such as the Sultans, the Lamplighters, the Sheiks, the Tenderfoots, the Cats and the Peacocks. When he established Ultra/Dig in late 1955 he auditioned hundreds of aspiring groups and single artists and he cut sessions on the best, many of which were conducted by Otis himself. Later he employed tenor sax giant, Jack Kelso, as his A&R head and arranger.
A few of the artists had never previously made recordings, and there were several tape boxes that were missing artist credits. They may have been groups moonlighting, a theory borne out as some have the group marked as "Phantoms" on the boxes. Otis had limited funds to operate his labels and distribution was always a problem. This meant that many masters stayed in the can, and some of these will never be identified. Most of the unissued performances are of good quality and we must be grateful that Otis had the foresight to keep most of his old material. We can now enjoy unreleased sides by greats like Tony Allen, the Senders, Prentice Moreland, the Click-Clacks, Harold Lewis and many others.
By Ray Topping