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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Johnny Otis, the Godfather of R&B

Johnny Otis, who has died aged 90, was the Greek-American bandleader who pioneered a style of Rhythm & Blues in California — and launched (or relaunched) the careers of half a dozen R&B superstars in the process. John Morthland heard Johnny's fascinating story for Creem back in the fall of 1971——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

When the Johnny Otis Show appears on stage, it brings years and years of rhythm and blues history with it.

There's piano and vibes player Otis himself, who started out in the early 40's as a drummer leading a swing jazz band, then moved into R&B after somebody — Otis credits Roy Milton — "accidentally" discovered that music. He soon became something of a musical catalyst, and the number of people Johnny Otis has introduced to us is nothing short of fantastic: Hank Ballard, Big Mama Willie Mae Thornton, Little Willie John, Jackie Wilson, Etta James, Little name but a handful.

Then there's Big Joe Turner, the Boss of the Blues, who became famous, after nearly two decades of singing, as the man who did 'Shake Rattle and Roll' before Bill Haley — and you know what happened after that! Ask Big Joe and he'll tell you he was "doing rock and roll a long time before that, 'cept they didn't call it rock and roll." There's also Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, whose 'Cherry Red' made his name a household word in the post-war ghettoes, right up there with Wynonie Harris, Charles Brown, Percy Mayfield, Bullmoose Jackson, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Turner.

Add to that 17-year-old guitarist Shuggie Otis (Johnny's son), a bassist and drummer, a four-man horn section, two more solo vocalists, and a four-girl singing group called the Otisettes, and you've got a 16-piece traveling show.

Otis brought his revue to Berkeley this Spring to play at the University of California. The afternoon before the concert, he relaxed on his hotel bed and talked a blue streak about the last 25 years of music, about his experiences in electoral politics, about how he was always considered "just another black bandleader" until he revealed in his book, Listen to the Lambs, that he was actually white, and of Greek ancestry.

The story actually begins right there in Berkeley, where the Veliotes (his real last name) family lived when Johnny was a wee child. His father ran a corner grocery store in the black ghetto. In his book, Otis talks about how he adopted the black lifestyle, despite warnings from his parents and teachers and everybody else who was white, because he found in it "that elusive quality called soul" that he says simply doesn't exist in the white community. From then on, he has moved almost exclusively in black circles.

It was, he says, his adoption of the black lifestyle, that led him to take up black music, and not the other way around. At any rate, before he was out of high school, Otis was sneaking off to Oakland with his school chums to play the teen dances. A friend named Otis Williams was the leader of his first band.

"Otis was a great singer and barrelhouse piano player," Johnny recalls. "He didn't wanna have a group to go be a big success commercially, he wanted to have a group so we could go play at the little hops in West Oakland and maybe make us a little bread to get us a little wine. I'd liked Gene Krupa and the great Joe Jones with Count Basie, so I liked the idea of being a drummer."

Otis Williams is now dead, but after playing Oakland's wine jug circuit, he and Otis got themselves a gig in Reno, Nevada, in 1941. And that did it — at the age of 20, Johnny Otis was now a professional musician, on the road.

Until 1948, Otis and his various bands criss-crossed the country, playing swing jazz. His first hit was 'Harlem Nocturne'. Basie was still King then, but there were lots of opportunities, because this was the music that was happening, and it was much in demand everywhere.

In 1948, Otis followed several others in jumping to a prototypical rhythm and blues sounds, and that's when things started getting really interesting. It's still interesting to Otis when he talks about it today, because nobody really knew just what it was he'd done until he already did it.

"R and B, as you know, is a hybrid music that's a combination of country blues and swing bop. Guys like myself, Roy Milton, Sonny Thompson, who had big band backgrounds, when we went into the rhythm and blues thing, we would liked to have taken our big bands with us, but we couldn't because two things happened," Otis explains.

"First, the black community asserted itself, in this sense: it showed a preference for what it wanted to buy in recorded music, and that was R&B songs. The smaller sounds appealed to them more than the big sounds. That factor, plus the economics of the day — we couldn't support the big band thing; I guess once caused the other.

"So when we broke down our big bands, here's how R&B was created. Guys like Roy Milton and later myself still wanted the brass section and reed section, and the best we could do was a tenor sax and a trumpet and the baritone. But you put them all together and something happens. Good jazz musicians are always based in the blues, that's where their roots are, and those guys will always find the right notes, you know, the real bluesy sound with the 7th on top. It wasn't long before, at least in my case, I preferred that sound to the big band.

"So now we're doing the blues, a country blues thing with riffs and whole notes and with backgrounds, where the horns took the part of maybe a vocal group humming behind the singer. And they also harken back to the swing era by setting riffs as the singer sang. And the electric guitar filled incidentally in between, and then a solo, and this didn't occur in the big bands; we never used an electric guitar. Add the piano, that we had used in the big band and of course boogie woogie with Earl Hines, Count Basie's boogies, Duke Ellington, so that wasn't new.

"But to put the piano, the twang of the electric guitar with the drum accentuating the after beat real fact, when we went to record, we used to have to press the engineer to give us the sound we wanted, because he didn't want it. They thought it was too loud, the guitar was too twangy. And then you add the horns to that with the singer singing the blues on top of all this, and you had rhythm and blues. We didn't know it, but that's what happened. I knew I had it in '48, but I heard it in Roy Milton's music and others as early as '43 and '44, so it was already there when I knew I'd finally found it."

Around the same time, Otis hit upon the idea of putting on a package show. His swing band had toured previously with the Ink Spots, so he was already thinking in terms of a revue when he opened the Barrelhouse Club in Watts in 1948.

"In the Barrelhouse," he says, "we had a talent show every weekend, and little by little I found the elements. I didn't know that's what I was building, but it turned out that way. Pete Lewis was the guitar player, Don Johnson the trumpet player, and all the players and singers were just kind of added ...Mel Walker the blues balladeer, Little Esther, the Robins...

"Once we had it all together, we put it on as a show at the Barrelhouse. These were the singers and players in my band, but we'd use them as a show...we'd play for dancing, and then do a show. Then in '48 we got a hit on the West Coast with 'Midnight at the Barrelhouse' and we went to San Diego. And I designed a placard to advertise the show, and I told the man that rather than use a little one, to use a big carnival placard, and put a picture of everybody and their name. And it looked like a carnival once you put it all together, and it looked like so much more than it really was even. Later, we called it the Rhythm and Blues Caravan, so when we got the hits with Little Esther, we used that package."

The hits with Little Esther (then 13), often singing with Mel Walker, were many over the next three or four years: 'Cupid's Blues', 'Double-Crossing Blues', 'Mistrusting Blues', 'Wedding Boogie', 'Misery'. Walker also had a few hits ('Gee Baby', 'Rocking Blues', 'Cry Baby'), and the combination made the R&B Caravan a popular concert attraction. So the whole gang of nearly 20 loaded into a bus, converted into a mobile hotel, and toured, toured, toured. Otis views the following years with a mixture of amusement, awe that they ever made it, outrage for the way they were often forced to live, and pride.

"Anywhere there was a black population, we played it, I think we've played every state except Vermont and New Hampshire. At least half our time was spent in the deep South, and it was funny how...well, whenever we were traveling and we'd cross the Mason-Dixon Line, somebody would holler and say we'd crossed it, and a quiet lull would come over the whole bus. And everybody would get real quiet and depressed, but after a while, well, we were in the South and as we'd go on things would come back to life."

From that period, he remembers twice (1950 and '51) filling the house in Atlanta, Georgia; apparently, the R&B Caravan still holds the attendance record there. Maybe ten percent of the audience was white, and they were kept in a roped-off section of the balcony. ("In some places, whites could come down and dance, but they had to dance on one side of the room, roped off; there had to be a physical symbol, a barrier of some kind.") Many of the whites sincerely dug the music even then, he believes, but a few always came around to drop stuff off the balcony onto the black dancers below. Today, Otis wonders more about the ones who came to dig the music.

"We were kept apart, so I don't know what kind of people they were. It would have been interesting to meet them and know who these white people in the South were, who liked to come to hear our black music."

And then there was the problem of being black and constantly on the road: "We knew by experience that when the time came to eat, well that was touchy. And we'd get tired of going to the grocery store because you could only get cold cuts, and we wanted a hot meal. So if we had a white bus driver, the cat would go in and inquire how they would allow us to eat, either come in the back door and eat in the kitchen, or come to the front door and get it in a sack, or maybe even to the front counter and get it in a sack. If we didn't have a white bus driver, I'd go in and inquire. Sometimes I'd go in and buy the stuff, because they wouldn't let anybody else from the show in, and I'd have to bring sacks back out to the bus. Mississippi was always the worst."

And of course, in addition to all the indignities, there were enough times when they were all physically threatened.

Otis continued working with the R&B Caravan through most of the '50s — never getting rich, but making do, as did most black musicians able to stay out on the road constantly. He had hits here and there with several people, worked as a talent scout for several labels, and did a bit of producing, though there was no such word then in the music biz.

Over the years, he was associated with zillions of labels in zillions of roles. Excelsior as an artist and producer. Modern (now Kent) in the later 40's. Savoy, Mercury, Apollo, Peacock, Duke, King, his own labels Dig and Ultra, and a few one-shot labels. And finally, by the mid-50's, Capitol and some kind of economic success, though artistically he's not especially pleased with that period.

The Capitol period began in 1957. The big hit came in '58 with the 'Johnny Otis Hand Jive', a novelty dance tune that must be about due for a solid revival from somebody. He had smaller successes with such numbers as 'Crazy Country Hop', 'Telephone Baby', 'Mumblin' Mose', and 'Three Girls Named Molly Doin' the Hully Gully'. Sound kinda hokey? Here's what Otis has to say:

"I was chasing the buck, trying to make a hit record: that was what you could call my 'rock and roll period,' like Picasso's 'blue Period.'" That last remark brings a touch of self-derisive laughter. "It was mostly contrived bullshit that I'm almost ashamed of. I like 'Hand Jive' a little piece, because it's fun. But some of that shit was really horrible. I love to do 'Hand Jive' even though the words are bubblegum bullshit, because it's a groove. Hardly a work of art, but it's an honest piece of rhythm that we enjoy."

Otis definitely sounds like a man who's been around, no? You're probably thinking he probably has some great stories about all those people who changed the course of popular music. Well, you're right, and you're in luck, too, because there are few things Johnny Otis likes better than reminiscing about those folks. His talk becomes more animated, he sits up and moves his hands about for emphasis. When he does talk about them, he fills in a few of the blanks in both the story of rhythm and blues and his own story.

Read the rest of this article on Rock's Backpages. 20,000 pieces by the greatest writers from the finest rock publications of the last 50 years.