Johnny Otis - Part Two©©©©©©2001JCMarion©


In early January of 1953, Mercury Records keeps at it. Johnny Otis has not had the consistent success he had with Savoy Records, but his enormous output of instrumentals and with a variety of different vocalists keeps him at the center of Rhythm & Blues action in the early nineteen fifties. Mercury #70050 features Ada Wilson and Mel Walker on "Love Bug Boogie" and Walker solo vocal on the interestingly named "Brown Skin Butterball". The Johnny Otis Revue tours the South with singers Willa Mae Thornton and Jimmy Witherspoon. Willie Mae Thornton's recording of "Hound Dog" arranged by Otis and featuring his drumming for Peacock is one of the top selling R & B records ever and soon Otis is part of the inevitable lawsuit. Robey sued Sun Records for infringement over "Bearcat" by Rufus Thomas and won, and now is suing King Records over Roy Brown and Little Esther's version of the song for King on #12126.

In September Johnny Otis who has produced Willie Mae Thornton for Peacock, does the same for hit singer Johnny Ace on Robey's Duke label. Robey also signs on Otis as a performer for his labels based in Houston Texas. Late in the month Otis and his combo go out on tour with another Peacock Records artist Marie Adams. In November the first recording by Otis for Peacock is released - #1625 - "Young Girl" and "Rock Me Baby". The Apollo Theater in New York features the Johnny Otis Revue with Willie Mae Thornton, Marie Adams and Junior Parker. In December Otis does two big weeks at the 5-4 Ballroom in L.A. He also did a weekend show at the Carlton Theater with Marie Adams and The Ravens, and is to leave for a short tour of the Pacific Northwest. At the end of the year Duke #117 is out which features vocalist "Google Eyes" August with the Otis band on "Oh What A Fool" and "Play The Game".

Johnny Otis begins 1954 with a return engagement at the 5-4 Ballroom. In February Peacock Records #1627 is released which features sax star Joe "Papoose" Fritz on "The Woman I Love" and "Honey Honey". Johnny and his combo stay out West and feature Christine Kittrell and Mel Walker at the L.A. Elks Club. Then he moved on to Denver with Kittrell and Marie Adams at the Rainbow Ballroom. In May Duke Records #119 is issued which features Junior Ryder with Otis on "Sad Story" and "You Better Stop". In June Duke #125 stars a vocal group called The Sultans with the Otis band on the pop standard "How Deep Is The Ocean" and a jump tune called "Good Thing Baby". A long ago Johnny Otis recording for Savoy called "Mambo Boogie" (#777) is suddenly a hot side in Philadelphia thanks to d.j. George Woods many spins on his radio show on WHAT. Savoy finally reacts with a re-release on #1132 with "Mambo Blues" by pianist Robert Banks on the flip side. While in the Bay area Otis came across a teenager with a real flair for R & B vocalizing. Her name was Jamesetta Hawkins, soon to be known as Etta James and before too much time had elapsed he was in the studio for Modern Records with an answer song to The Midnighters "Work With Me Annie" called "The Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry)". The tune with backup vocals by The Peaches and Richard Berry (and tempo setting percussion by Otis himself) became one of the hallmark sounds of the birth of rock 'n roll. For a bit of help Johnny played the tune on his nightly radio show.

By the middle of 1954 Johnny Otis is seemingly everywhere in the L.A. area. He presides over a daily radio show for KFOX, plays the Club Alimony on Central Avenue Friday and Saturday nights, and does in person shows at the Lincoln Theater most Sundays. All this besides his interests in Record Rack stores and his booming chicken business ! In August an R & B show at L.A.'s Savoy Ballroom is a huge success with B.B. King headlining and including Marvin & Johnny, The Lamplighters, Platters, Shirley Gunter & The Queens, and the Johnny Otis band with Marie Adams and Junior Ryder. Fremont High vocal groups The Penguins and The Medallions share the mike on the KFOX Johnny Otis radio show, while Johnny hits the road for some dates in Northern California. Peacock Records releases #1636 in September which features the songs "Shake It" and "I Won't Be Your Fool No More". The First Annual Johnny Otis Hep Cat Ball takes place in early October at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. The affair is mc'd by San Francisco dj Jackie Ford. The show starred The Penguins, Medallions, Richard Berry & The Dreamers, Marvin & Johnny, Chuck Higgins, and the Johnny Otis Revue. In mid December The Platters and Johnny and his band do a big show at the Riverside Rancho in California.

In early 1955 Johnny and his combo share the stage with The Medallions, Don Julian & The Meadowlarks, Marie Adams, and Junior Ryder at L.A.'s Savoy Ballroom. In March Peacock #1649 presents Marie Adams on "Boom Diddy Wawa" and "In Memory" with Otis and his band. The song "Please have Mercy" written by Johnny's wife Phyllis Otis is recorded by Linda Hayes for King, and covered by Bunny Paul on Capitol and Roberta Lee on X. In April the Johnny Otis Revue will hit the road for the first time in almost two years on an extended tour. Marie Adams and Junior Ryder will be featured. After the tour of the Southwest, Johnny returns to California and his band inaugurates a series of R & B shows at Legion Stadium in El Monte. Johnny helps host a big party at the 5-4 Ballroom honoring Roy Milton for his 20 years in show business. Camille Howard and Mickey Champion also take part in the gathering. In the midst of all this activity Johnny does some session work for Mercury Records and appears on the Red Prysock anthem "Rock And Roll" and its screaming flip side "Little Jamie".

In June Peacock #1648 is released with "Sittin' Here Drinkin'" and "You Got Me Crying" featured. Lawsuits fly over proper copyrights for "Roll With Me Henry" (called "Dance With Me Henry" in the suits). Later in the year the Otis band features Little Arthur Matthews and Pete Lewis. In November the band is set for a two week stint at the Savoy Ballroom. The big news is the new television show for KTTV in Los Angeles hosted by Otis. It has gotten a good initial response by viewers in the Southern California area. The 2nd annual Hep Cat Ball is being set up for the Shrine Auditorium. Tony Allen formerly of The Champs is a regular performer on the TV show as the new year begins. The show features many R & B artists from the West coast such as The Jayhawks, Jaguars, Teen Queens, Etta James, and The Colts. In early 1956 The Mesner Brothers of Aladdin Records form a new independent R & B label called Ultra Records. Johnny Otis has a hand in the new enterprise. His old friend Preston Love records one of the first releases on the label, "Groove Juice". The Mesners soon change the name of the label to Dig Records and Otis is the main A & R man for the company. One day a group called The Tears performed on his TV show and so impressed Johnny that he recorded them for the Dig label on the tunes "Until The Day I Die" and "Nothing But Love" on #112.

In early August a group of R & B insiders hold a conference in Los Angeles to counter unfavorable press coverage of R & B music and its performers. Members of the panel included Hunter Hancock, Art Rupe of Specialty Records, promoter Hal Zeiger (who recently lost his permit to produce shows in El Monte) and Otis. In September Johnny Otis first release for the Dig label is out - #119 - "Let The Sunshine In My Heart" and "Hey Hey Hey Hey". More Otis related lawsuits appear, this time over copyright infringement of the song "Hound Dog" as recorded by Elvis Presley. The beat goes on. Googie Rene, Chuck Higgins, and Richard Berry do the Otis TV show in the fall. In November "The Midnight Creeper" parts one and two is released on Dig #122. Three more Dig Records are released featuring Otis during the first half of 1957 - #132 - "My Eyes Are Full Of Tears" and "Turtle Dove"; #134 - "Wa Wa" parts one and two, and #139 "Stop Look, and Love Me" parts one and two.

In mid 1957 with radio, TV, and various arranging and promotion duties (such as taking over the El Monte shows) taking up so much of his time, Johnny Otis is now signed to his first major label, Capitol Records the home of Sinatra ! The vocal-instrumental unit is listed by Capitol as The Johnny Otis Show as a tie in to the television program. The first Capitol releases from the same session are quickly forgotten - #3799 - "Can't You Hear Me Calling"; #3800 - "In The Dark";#3801 - "Tell Me So"; and #3802 "It's Too Soon To Know". The tune "Bye Bye Baby" on #3852 gets some airplay in Southern California in late 1957 and into the following January. In February Capitol releases #3899 - "You Just Kissed Me Goodbye" and "Well Well Well" with Mel Williams on vocals. In early spring Johnny makes plans for a unique tour of playing dates in Great Britain with his entire aggregation along with The Penguins. The tour is held up because of problems with the British Musicians Union. The Otis recordings for Capitol have not done much of job in sales or airplay and there are rumblings of Capitol pulling the plug on the Johnny Otis Show. In mid April Capitol puts out another Otis release with little or no advance notice, and Capitol is about to be blind sided. The record is "Willie and the Hand Jive" on #3966. The flip is "Ring-A-Ling".

By June the record is everywhere utilizing the old "shave and a haircut" rhythm which came out of Southwestern territory bands of the thirties and popularized by Red Saunders "Hambone" and immortalized by Bo Diddley in 1955. After close to twenty years in the business Johnny Otis is an overnight sensation. He and his tune become a household name across America. In the midst of this new found success and recognition Johnny does not forget his beginnings. He puts together an all Black R & B revue to appear at the upscale Hollywood nightclub The Crescendo, on Monday evenings. The show will feature Marie Adams, Mel Williams, and various guest stars. "Willie and the Hand Jive" becomes the most requested dance number across the nation. It lands in the pop music national charts and remains for four months and gets as high as number nine. The television show continues to showcase West coast talent such as The Six Teens and Don & Dewey. Capitol wants a followup and soon #4060 is released in mid September with "Willie Did The Cha Cha" and "Crazy Country Hop". This record gets initial sales and airplay especially in the Midwest cities of Chicago and Detroit but soon fades from the scene. Two further Capitol releases went nowhere - #4156 - "My Dear One" / "You" and #4226 - "Three Girls Named Molly" / "I'll Do The Same Thing", and Capitol releases an LP called simply "The Johnny Otis Show". Although it was an important record in terms of delineating a time, a place, and a point in a prolific career, it was soon forgotten also. It was now the dawn of the 1960's and Johnny Otis was once again at a crossroads in his career.

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