by George Lipsitz, author of Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story
Johnny Otis died on January 17, less than one month after his 90th birthday. His rich and full life as a band leader, musician, singer, composer, radio and television host, author and artist has won him many awards and honors including induction into the Rock Hall of Fame in 1994. His biography in the Rock and Roll Hall of fame salutes him as the Godfather of Rhythm and Blues, an appropriate title given his key role in creating small combos in the years after World War II that were capable of blending the driving pulse of the big swing bands with the sensuality and artistry of the blues. Otis and his business partner and onetime manager Bardu Ali opened the first nightclub in the world devoted solely to rhythm and blues, the Barrelhouse Club near 107th Street and Wilmington in Watts. Otis discovered and produced an amazing array of great artists including Etta James, Jackie Wilson, Little Esther Phillips, Hank Ballard, Sugar Pie DeSanto and Little Willie John. He wrote and recorded “Willie and the Hand Jive,” played drums on Big Mama Thornton’s original recording of “Hound Dog” and played vibes on Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love.” Yet Otis also exerted enormous influence on rock’n’roll itself. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was inspired to play the electric guitar because of the songs he heard listening to Otis’ radio shows on KFOX in Long Beach. As teenagers Frank Zappa of the Mothers of Invention and John Stewart of the Kingston Trio regularly observed Otis producing records in his home studio. Bob Dylan admired Otis’ music and in his book Chronicles confided that he drew on it as a particular inspiration during one especially difficult recording session in the 1980s.
Otis demurred from presenting himself as a founding “father” of rhythm and blues or of rock. One night a caller to his public radio show described Johnny as the father of rock’n’roll. “Well I don’t know about that,” Otis replied. “I am the father of Laura and Janis and Shuggie and Nicky Otis, but I don’t know that it goes beyond that.” His reluctance to accept the status this listener and others wanted to bestow on him was not a matter of personal modesty but rather an issue of collective responsibility. Otis always insisted that the great Black music he played and admired was a collective creation of the Black community. While the artistry of select individuals like Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Lightnin’ Hopkins shaped its definitive contours, the music itself was a communal product. In his book Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue, Otis explained that the music came from: “the African American way of life. The way mama cooked, the way Black English grandmother and grandfather spoke, the way daddy disciplines the kids – the emphasis in spiritual values, the way Reverend Jones preached, the way Sister Williams sang in the choir, the way the old brother down the street played the slide guitar and the blues, the very special way the people danced, walked, laughed, cried, joked, or got happy, shouted in church.”
It is precisely because of this view, that the Rock Hall is the right place for Johnny Otis to be honored. The biography on display there lists many of his personal connections to the music’s history: to the Coasters and Etta James, to “Hound Dog” and “Pledging My Love” to Big Joe Turner and to Johnny’s son Shuggie Otis. However, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum does something else. In its Cities and Sounds exhibits – especially the ones on Memphis between 1948 and 1959, and on Detroit from 1962 to 1971 – the Hall has re-created the sights and sounds of the communities that Otis always credited for the creation of his music. The artists and artistry Otis encountered in clubs on Beale Street in Memphis and on Hastings Street in Detroit, and events like the talent show at the Paradise Theatre in Detroit where the entrants included Little Willie John, Jackie Wilson, and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters – none of whom won because apparently there was someone even better that night – had an enormous impact on him. He also valued deeply his encounters with a street hustler from Michigan that he first knew as Detroit Red but later came to know under his new name Malcolm X. Otis participated in a Los Angeles political study group that hosted speakers that included Minister Malcolm and James Baldwin. He followed closely the struggle by sanitation workers in Memphis that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his life to support. It was in Memphis in 1952 that police officers arrested the entire audience at a performance by Johnny Otis and his band, lined them up against the wall, searched them and upbraided them with racial epithets. Both the beautiful cultures and bitter struggles in these cities and others like them made Otis the musician and freedom fighter that he came to be.
My friendship with Johnny Otis spans the last quarter century. He was the most loving and the most loved person I have ever known. It will be painful to go on without him. The many tributes to him that poured in from all over the world testify to how much he will be missed by so many people. But the people who love him and those who do not yet know him can find substantial solace in the ways in which he and the culture that he always acknowledged and honored are represented in the Rock Hall.
About George Lipsitz:
George Lipsitz studies social movements, urban culture and inequality. His books include Midnight at the Barrelhouse, Footsteps in the Dark, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, A Life in the Struggle and Time Passages. Lipsitz serves as chairman of the board of directors of the African American Policy Forum and is a member of the board of directors of the National Fair Housing Alliance. He received his Ph.D in history at the University of Wisconsin.