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The Boston Phoenix He Did It All

Johnny Otis's R&B caravan

By Bill Kisliuk

NOVEMBER 22, 1999:  They say the blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll. But the story's not quite as simple as that, as Johnny Otis understands better than most. Probably best known for his shuffling 1958 megahit "Willie and the Hand Jive," Otis has had a career that's taken him from a night behind the drum kit with Count Basie to recording "Hound Dog" with Big Mama Thornton and "discovering" vocal talents like Little Willie John and the Ravens and Etta James.

It would be impossible to sum up in less than three minutes the legacy of a musical renaissance man who has been a bandleader, a talent scout, a radio personality, a preacher, and a pigeon farmer. But the folks behind the three-CD retrospective The Johnny Otis Rhythm & Blues Caravan: The Complete Savoy Recordings have come pretty close by unearthing a little jingle called "Hunter Hancock Theme" for the just-released set. Recorded in 1951 as an introduction to pioneering R&B DJ Hunter Hancock's radio show Harlem Matinee, it opens with a brassy flourish by the Otis orchestra. Then Hancock announces that the show runs the gamut from "bebop to ballads," "swing to sweet," and "blues to boogie." With each couplet, Otis's versatile orchestra plays a convincing couple of seconds in the appropriate style, from a chaotic bop melody to a lean, Texas-style blues guitar lick. The song fades as Otis delivers a vibraphone solo.

The tune is just a tease, packed in among nearly 80 numbers Otis recorded between 1945 and 1952, many of which rode to the top of the R&B charts. It was a time when the shape of black music was changing fast, and Otis covered a lot of territory, from gutbucket-blues instrumentals to comic vocal sketches set to swinging jazz accompaniment to love-lorn doo-wop-tinged ballads with sighing horns and humming back-up singers. Otis was enamored of the big, blues-drenched orchestras of Count Basie and Lionel Hampton when he got his start as a drummer in the San Francisco Bay area. He spent a little time in the barnstorming Midwest "territory" bands who played in the styles that Basie and Jay McShann made famous, then put together his own orchestra in the Club Alabam in the very heart of Los Angeles's lively black strip, Central Avenue.

But there were several forces conspiring against big bands at the time. One was simple finances: it cost a hell of a lot of money to keep an orchestra on the move. The there were the World War II-era restrictions on travel and recording due to the tight rationing of gasoline and shellac. Many of the great bands of the day stripped down to just a sextet or octet, covering as much musical territory as possible with creative horn arrangements and a more essential, rawboned feel.

"People like Roy Milton, Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson, Charles Brown, we had big bands in our blood," Otis recalls from his home north of San Francisco. "But we were forced by economics to break down into smaller bands. This, in fact, was the beginning of a new music. It became rhythm and blues. Instead of a bebop drummer with great facility, we got someone who could just play straight rhythm. We went from five saxophone players to two."

The stripped-down set-up allowed Otis to tap into all the popular styles of the day, utilizing the nonstop discoveries from talent shows held at his Barrelhouse Club in Watts and elsewhere. Perhaps the most famed discovery closely associated with his own hits was Little Esther Phillips, barely a teen when she cut her first sides. She would record several sophisticated, jazzy vocal albums as an adult, but her material with Otis was startlingly sharp and yet elegant, in a style closely linked with Dinah Washington. Otis's discovery of Phillips, and the subsequent hits she was associated with, including "Double Crossing Blues" and "Wedding Boogie" (where the preacher warns her, "You better take him for better because you can't do no worse"), would enhance his rep as a starfinder.

While traveling with the orchestra, Otis recalls, "I would have these stage-door mamas and papas waiting for me. I learned early to tiptoe around that. They might say, 'If you think Junior can sing, all right. If not, that's just fine.' But they didn't mean that. I had to think up a lot of bullshit."

He looks back fondly on the era, if not on the labels, including Savoy, that he says "screwed me real good." Now 78, he's still at it, performing and recording, hosting a syndicated radio show and hawking everything from his records to his paintings on his Web site. Dan Marx, who coordinated the reissue project, which included the unearthing of several previously unreleased tunes featuring crooner Mel Walker, says that Otis's rockin' role goes far beyond these cuts, and that's one reason to give them their due. "Johnny Otis is too important a character, too important a player, to not do this kind of complete package."

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