Pioneering rhythm and blues singer, songwriter, drummer, bandleader, disc jockey and good friend to Ace, Johnny Otis sadly passed away last week at the age of 90. Alec Palao pays tribute to the music legend who also happened to officiate at his wedding.
It’s well nigh impossible to squeeze the remarkable life of Johnny Otis into a few hundred words, so I won’t even try. But it takes just a few of them to state the obvious: in the history of popular music, his is a crucial chapter. As musician, bandleader, songwriter, producer, talent scout, disc jockey, record man and promoter and impresario, Otis was present, correct and an active participant at every stage of the birth pangs and adolescence of rhythm and blues. In so many ways, he was the genre’s architect.
With Johnny’s passing, the tributes have focused most naturally on his most visible achievements – his discovery of the likes of Etta James (RIP), Jackie Wilson, Don & Dewey, Sugar Pie DeSanto, song credits like ‘Every Beat Of My Heart’ and ‘So Fine’, and of course his big hit and calling card, ‘Willie & The Hand Jive’. But to my mind, there is one ongoing aspect to Johnny’s life that bears the most consideration: his relentless ardour for the music that he also had an undeniable hand in guiding to fruition. More than anything else, he was perhaps the first, and certainly the most significant, member of the black music community to actively champion that community – and did so until the end of his days. Johnny Otis was the greatest cheerleader rhythm and blues ever had.
Born of Greek parentage, Johnny’s assimilation into the African-American community in his native San Francisco East Bay back in the 1930s was seamless, because of his complete identification with the black lifestyle. Ensconced as a drummer, first locally and then with the touring territory bands in the halcyon days of the embryonic chitlin circuit, Otis immersed himself in that special moment where jazz begat R&B in the 1940s, and rose to become a central figure within the scene. Based in Los Angeles for most of the ensuing quarter-century, his presence was omnipotent, his abilities as enabler and tastemaker renowned. Apart from a dalliance with whitebread rock’n’roll – which outside of ‘Willie’, he later disavowed, even though it had garnered him chart accolades around the globe – Otis always stayed close to the black community musically, and otherwise, via his political activism and staunch support of civil rights in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Staying true to the revue format that he had made his name with, Johnny enjoyed occasional resurgences of popularity, such as his stint with Epic in the late 1960s, which heralded the arrival of his protégé son, Shuggie. But as well as music, he embraced as many artistic disciplines and pursuits as he could find time for. His prolific painting and sculptural work was striking, his writing colourful yet erudite. But the love of music was so often the theme of all. Services at his Landmark Community Church in Watts were invariably focused on music. When Johnny opened a delicatessen in northern California in the 1990s to market his organic apple juice and wines, the Johnny Otis Show performed every weekend. Similarly, his course on Black Music at Vista College in Berkeley saw most lectures become a jam session with his sons Nicky and Lucky, along with sundry notables from the R&B world. I attended some of these, and it was inspirational to hear Johnny argue passionately about the need for the hip-hop generation to pay respect to the rich blues and jazz legacy of their forebears. I also noted that his piano and vibes playing was always top-notch.
However, it was when I had the unique opportunity to transfer a large tranche of his personal tape stash, on behalf of Ace, at the turn of this century, that I really got a rare and treasured insight into the breadth of Johnny Otis’ recorded achievements of fifty years hence. There were several hundred reels that went back to the dawn of tape recording in the late 1940s, right through to his 1980s big band sessions; an endlessly fascinating microcosm of the changing sounds and tastes of the black audience in those years. Out of that particular trawl came “The Johnny Otis Show”, a mélange of airchecks and live broadcasts, and a remarkable audio snapshot of the man’s prime position in the southern California arena of the 1950s. It was a complete blast to put together. There were also ear-opening surveys of his funk and later 60s recordings on BGP, and Ace is still living off the excursion, most recently in the second volume of our Johnny Otis anthology, “On With The Show”, ironically released this month. Both volumes are excellent and highly recommended for both the neophyte and the Otis-head.
Johnny was most fond of Ace’s Ted Carroll and Ray Topping, who had undertaken the first round of major excavations into his vault in the early 90s, and which had resulted in several acclaimed collections of his Dig Records masters. Johnny in particular was fascinated by “that cockney, Roy!” On the first occasion I visited him at his house in Sebastopol, delivering some Ace product for his weekly, much-loved radio show on KPFA, there was a pot of red beans and rice simmering on the stove, and Johnny was as hospitable as could be. Another time, I mentioned that I was getting married, and before I could even gently inquire as to his availability, he had agreed to officiate. Thanks to an unanticipated downpour, the actual event wasn’t much of a wedding, per se, but it was a hell of a party – with everyone jammed shoulder-to shoulder into the small reception hall, it was like getting married at a gig, and Johnny’s joyous gospel-tinged delivery of the vows was the icing on the cake. Whilst we waited for my darling betrothed to walk – or should I say, navigate – the aisle, Pastor Otis reminisced to me of his own incredibly long-lived union to Phyllis, and joked that we should have used his ‘Wedding Boogie’ for the march. It meant so much to Cindy and I that Johnny would do this for us.
Truth be told, for the last few years of his life, Johnny lay low. He had returned to southern California, and his last major activity was collaborating with George Lipsitz on the excellent biography, “Midnight At The Barrelhouse”: mandatory reading, as are Johnny’s own memoir “Upside Your Head”, and the anthology of his art, “Colors & Chords”. Oh yeah, the cookbook too. Somehow, the world won’t seem the same without Johnny Otis, but what a fabulous gift he left for us, in his music, his art, and in what he brought to pass. Right now, I can hear him murmuring his famous sign off: bye bye baby, until we meet again . . .