The Godfather of R&B
“How real is any of the past, being every moment revalued to make the present possible...”― William Gaddis
“Johnny Otis had class,” that is what Sugar Pie DeSanto had to say about the man who named her and brought her to the big time.
Born 100 years ago today, Johnny Otis left a huge mark on music, being a true Renaissance man of the mid-20th century sound machine….composing, singing, djing, band-leading, talent scouting, club-owning….doing all of it extraordinarily well and with a prophetic vision. Called The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues, he helped define the movement with records like the Willie and the Hand Jive, the genre Bending Mambo Boogie (the first R&B Mambo recording), and Rockin’ Blues (and so many others). His band was a whose-who of the biggest sensations on the charts: Wynonie Harris, Charles Brown, Illinois Jacquet, and Little Esther. He discovered Etta James (check out an early recording, Dance With Me Henry), Sugar Pie, the colossal Saxman Big Jay McNeeley, Johnny Ace (check out Pledging My Love, with Otis on vibraphone), Jackie Wilson and Big Mama Thornton, to name a few. For Thornton he produced and played drums on the original recording of Hound Dog. Rock ‘n’ Roll, beta edition.
It is mind numbing to think about everything Otis was involved in during his lifetime, a career that went from the mid-30s with his first band, The West Oakland House Rockers, formed after ditching Berkeley High School, til the mid-90s, with a band featuring his grand children who would play outside the Johnny Otis Market he owned in Sebastopol, CA (he was a Northern Californian through and through).
I spoke to legendary Chess recording artist Sugar Pie Desanto yesterday about Johnny Otis. She was at her home in Oakland, getting ready for the release of her new album. At 86, she was radiating with the energy she is famous for, reminiscing about her time with Otis:
“It was 1954. I won the weekly talent show at the Ellis Theater in San Francisco. Johnny came up to me after the show and chose me—out of all the entertainers in the show—he chose me to go to LA and make a record. He said, ‘You are going to Los Angeles and make a record.’ I was flabbergasted so I said to him, ‘You talking to me?’ I thought he was a nutter. But he loved the entertainer I was (and still am). I thought he was trying to be fresh. But he wasn’t.
Johnny had an idea of a sound for me—not the sound I had been building in Oakland with my husband at the time Pee Wee (Kingsley). But he had an idea for a record. I walked into the studio in Los Angeles. I was surprised at all the musicians who were there. It is not like it is today…back then all the musicians were in the studio together, recording together. It was overwhelming for me…such a huge band…I had never done that kind of recording. I was so little, they had to make a pile of books for me to stand on to reach the microphone. I recorded Please Be True at this session as well as a duet with a guy named Hank.
While in the studio, Johnny looked at me and said, we cannot put no Peylia on a record (that was my original first name) so we are going to give you a new name. You are only 80 pounds but you got a big voice. You look like a little sugar pie, we’ll call you Sugar Pie.
He gave me the big time for the first time. He and his wife…they were cool. Whatever you needed, he would look out for you.”
Otis really did look after and celebrate the musicians he discovered and worked with. In 1970 he recorded a concert in Monterey featuring most of the living hitmakers of the rhythm and blues era of the 50s: Roy Milton, Roy Brown, Big Joe Turner, Little Esther, Ivory Joe Hunter….some of these cats had not played in front of a large audience in years. Otis led the band through an incredible all-star set celebrating the sound he helped create. He continued the goodness through the label he launched in the 70s, Blues Spectrum, which gave a recording and distribution outlet to the same aforementioned legends and more.
And with all that, Otis was kept up his own prolific recording gait, releasing one of my favorites of his later-period records in 1969, the nutso, brilliant, XXX-rated Snatch and the Poontangs. With his sons in tow, the guitar impresario Shuggie Otis and Nicky Otis on drum, Johnny just kept making record after record, through the 1980s, always experimenting, always with flair.
Otis died right after turning 90, in 2012, leaving a legacy that is hard to be matched (we have not even touched upon all the songs he wrote that became huge hits for other artists or the radio programs he produced through the decades). Happy 100th birthday to Johnny Otis, The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues and the mastermind of the popular music scene that ushered in Rock n Roll.
Yes, it was Joel Poinsett who gifted the world the flower he brought back from Mexico (thus the “Euphorbia Poinsettia”). It has since become a holiday sensation….and no, I don’t get it. But before the Bah Humbug echoes through this page, I will say that the story of how it erupted into the Western public consciousness and became such a tradition is a great one. The article does not go into the mass killing of Poinsettias soon after the holiday season is done, year after year. That, I guess, is a story for another time.
Alvin Lucier passed away earlier this month. One of the pioneers in sound experimentation, his piece I Am Sitting In A Room is so ahead of its time…transformative and influential: it is almost dwarfed by the electronic/ambient era it helped usher in. Be good to yourself and take the time to listen to the whole piece. Be patient with it, it will bring you to alien lands from a very human place. The Wire celebrated Lucier’s life by making available an interview they ran in 2004…it is a great read that I suggest digging into while listening to another of his legendary soundscape projects, Music On A Long Thin Wire.
“Legendary artist Yayoi Kusama is a global sensation. She has paved the way for Minimalism, Pop art, performance art, and immersive art installations…Although much has been written about Kusama’s popular “Infinity Nets,” her critically acclaimed “Infinity Mirror Rooms,” her mental illness, and even her rise to stardom, the artist’s eternal fascination with nature is an essential aspect of her prolific career that often goes unexplored.”
By: Rainer Maria Rilke
Do you remember still the falling stars
that like swift horses through the heavens raced
and suddenly leaped across the hurdles
of our wishes—do you recall? And we
did make so many! For there were countless numbers
of stars: each time we looked above we were
astounded by the swiftness of their daring play,
while in our hearts we felt safe and secure
watching these brilliant bodies disintegrate,
knowing somehow we had survived their fall.
Translated by Albert Ernest Flemming
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