Johnny Otis : Part Three ©2001JCMarion


It was now the 60s and the music that Johnny Otis had championed most of his life had receded into the background of most record buyers and music radio listeners. This was now the era of the teen idols, girl groups, surf and hot rod music, and soon would be descending into twist and dance mania for a couple of years. The classic sound of R & B was mostly forgotten (despite Charles Brown's Christmas hit, and Gene Chandler, Jessie Hill, and Chris Kenner's quick hit status) as new trends and styles emerged in the early years of that tumultuous decade. Otis had tried his hand (briefly) at starting another new record label on his own called Eldo Records which produced "The New Bo Diddley" and "Jelly Roll" on #106. A series of unsuccessful sides for King followed and now Johnny Otis branched out away from music that had been so much a part of his life.

He had strong feelings for his community, and after the disastrous Watts riot of 1965 he began to become involved in the political process and become active in community affairs for the minority population of South Central Los Angeles. He continued his chicken business for a time and then found himself back in the midst of the musical scene in the late sixties. He had a one shot for Atlantic in which he recorded the two part "Keep The Faith" on #2409 (which was also released on his Eldo label as #152). It was then that his son called Shuggie began to receive recognition and acclaim as a first rate blues and rock guitarist, which culminated in the critically praised album called "Cold Shot" recorded for the Kent label in 1968, and a spin off single called "Country Boy" released on Kent #506. While the music was center stage once again, Otis had turned author and wrote a book concerning the contributions of his community and the shortchanging of that same community by the political power structure and how that had impacted on him and his family. The title was "Listen To The Lambs" and it was an honest portrayal of a vibrant and productive segment of society being left out of the pursuit of the American dream.

With the dawn of a new decade Johnny Otis decided to do something a bit radical for the times. He would get a number of veteran R & B performers together and go out on a barnstorming tour just like the old days of twenty or so years before, and attempt to introduce an entire new generation of listeners to the artists that laid the foundation of the music that they were so in tune with. It was a kind of wake up call to show that it was not Elvis, it was not The Beatles, it was not Led Zeppelin, that invented rock music, but rather a number of R & B classic performers that was once again shut out of financial rewards for their inventiveness and talent. The first time that I had realized that Otis was about the country with his new endeavor was the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival that had been organized by political radical and activist John Sinclair. The entire three day get together was broadcast by National Public Radio and was a musical treat that brought together such names as Ray Charles, Jimmy Reed, Sun Ra, J.B. Hutto, and so many more. Right in the middle of all of this musical treasure was Johnny Otis, his band, and a number of veteran R & B performers wowing the predominantly young crowd. This appearance spurred on the Otis Show to the big moment this time around - the appearance at the 1970 Monterey Jazz Festival in California. The great reception given to this revue of R & B veterans gave impetus to Epic Records to release a live recording of the show. The LP (#30473) stands as one of R & B music's brightest and historic moments. The highlights were many : Little Esther singing "Cry Me A River" and other blues numbers, Joe Turner the "Boss of the Blues" doing two numbers, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson and his two signature tunes "Kidney Stew" and "Cleanhead Blues", Ivory Joe Hunter on "Since I Met You Baby" a great crossover hit of the mid fifties, Roy Milton's historic "R.M. Blues", Roy Brown's landmark tune "Good Rockin' Tonight", bluesy guitar man Peewee Crayton on Guitar Slim's "The Things I Used To Do", and newer performers Delmar "Mighty Mouth" Evans, Gene "Flea" Connors, Margie Evans, and of course Shuggie and Johnny Otis. In the band was Johnny's longtime friend Preston Love on sax and a turn on the piano was taken by longtime jazz critic Leonard Feather. What a show !

Johnny Otis also returned to the radio waves in 1970 with a show called "Blue Monday" over L.A.'s KPPC-FM featuring Shuggie and many guest appearances by R & B greats. Also in the year of 1970 Johnny presented a show for PBS that recreated the days of the Barrelhouse Club on Central Avenue in the late forties. Many of the R & B legends appeared such as Charles Brown, Lowell Fulson, Joe Turner, Little Esther, Roy Milton, Cleanhead Vinson, and T-Bone Walker. The show ended with Shuggie Otis and T-Bone trading blues licks. It was a memorable show and a historic television special. Father and son (Johnny and Shuggie) also recorded a number of R & B legends in the 70s on the Otis label Blues Spectrum. Most re-recorded some of their classic sides aided by modern technology. A dozen LPs were the result and many of the tunes were released on a 5 CD set for LaserLight. The performers included Joe Turner, PeeWee Crayton, Louis Jordan, Charles Brown, Richard Berry, Joe Liggins, Amos Milburn, Gatemouth Moore, and Cleanhead Vinson. All of the big songs are included and added to the Otis legacy by preserving the music and the artists that made so much history.

With all of his other endeavors Johnny Otis added another. He was ordained as a minister in 1974 and headed up his own church called the Landmark Community Church which soon became known for its many community outreach programs fighting hunger and poverty in the greater Los Angeles area. By the late 1980s Johnny was finally contemplating a life of retirement after so many years and so many activities. He left his long time home base of Los Angeles and headed north to the community of Sebastopol midway between Santa Rosa and Bodega Bay north of San Francisco. There he created his produce and deli market specializing in natural and organic foods, and also kept his hand in the musical side of life with weekend nightly in person shows, and a live radio show for Berkley's Radio Pacifica that airs on weekend mornings as an extension of his long running R & B program. During the mid nineties some others finally gave Otis his due. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame honored Johnny in a back handed way by honoring him as an influential person in a "non performer" category. This is all too typical of the know nothings who run that hall, mostly a bunch of revisionist rock historians of the post Beatles era. For proof just look who is in and who isn't ! More to the satisfaction of Otis and the R & B pioneers was an award from the lesser known Rhythm & Blues Foundation in Washington D.C., and also a Grammy nomination for an album saluting the territory bands of the 1930s that he produced and recorded for the Arhoolie label. He also had time to author another book called "Upside Your Head : Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue" published by Weslyan University Press, so the first half of the decade of the 90s saw no slowdown in activities for Johnny.

At the beginning of the new millennium Johnny Otis is still the ultimate R & B renaissance man. I recently saw a news clip of him giving his take on hip-hop music and proclaiming Louis Jordan as the pioneer of rap. So very typically J.O. So that is an overview of the life and times of Mr. Johnny Otis, a pioneer of R & B music in performing both vocally and instrumentally, writing, arranging, producing, organizing personal appearances and shows, radio personality, television visionary, author, and historian. Add to that some of his other sidelines such as chicken rancher, church minister, political activist, and producer of organic and natural foods. With all of that I probably left out at least a half dozen other outlets for his natural and boundless energy. Johnny Otis - what a life, and what a man ! The once and always Godfather of Rhythm & Blues. Without his existence we might all be listening to stuff like "Doggie In The Window" and "Onesy Twosey" for the last fifty years or so !

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