Johnny Otis

Midnight In The BarrelhouseExcelsior 536
My Baby Done Told Me (The Four Bluebirds)Excelsior 540
Double Crossing BluesSavoy 731
Warning BluesSavoy 812
Hound Dog (Big Mama Thornton)Peacock 1612
Pledging My Love (Johnny Ace)Duke 136
In The DarkCapitol F3800
Willie And The Hand JiveCapitol F3966
Crazy Country HopCapitol F4060
Castin' My SpellCapitol F4168

Embed from Getty Images



Johnny Otis playlist


Contributors: Dave Stephens – with Cal Taylor

Godfather of Rhythm and Blues …

Renaissance Man …

Pick up any biography of Johnny Otis and those are the sort of phrases you’ll see. Born in 1921, but we didn’t hear anything of him on this side of the pond until late 1957 and the appearance of a curious record with a lengthy credit that read THE JOHNNY OTIS SHOW – Johnny Otis and His Orchestra with Marie Adams and the Three Tons of Joy. The names didn’t mean a lot until the LP released hot on the heels of the single’s success clarified things a little. Yup, the bloke in the front with the ‘tache had to be Johnny with a fairly small but keen looking orchestra ranged behind him, and various singers and vocal groups photoshopped behind them, only Photoshop hadn’t been invented yet so perhaps it was real. In the upper right were three ample looking black ladies who just had to be those Three Tons of Joy, and presumably Marie was one of them. I recall admiring this sleeve in a record store window for weeks but unfortunately for my musical education and enjoyment, meanness won over adventure, and before too long, that sleeve disappeared (see also Footnote 1 for expansion on that “we didn’t hear anything”).

The Johnny Otis Show LP

And the single wasn’t bad. Ma (He’s Making Eyes At Me) was an oldie belted out in a not dissimilar manner to such songs given a bit of wellie by someone like Anne Shelton on “Workers’ Playtime” on the Light Programme at lunchtime. All right it did have more oomph plus real or simulated audience reaction, squeals and all – that’s if they did overdubbing like that in those days. And it had plenty of doo-wop-be-doody-doodies and we certainly hadn’t heard enough of them in ’57. Chart wise it did very well for itself; number two for a previously unheard of group was quite something.

Although it didn’t get any airtime, the flip side, In The Dark, was as good as the A-side and, for me, even better. Another oldie, only not that old – 1938 this time not 1921 – but it lent itself more to a soulful treatment and Marie Adams made the most of it. We just hadn’t heard this sort of thing. Chuck in a bluesy sounding guitarist who announced himself from the start, a more nuanced form of doo wop that was less pastichey than the A-side plus a whole load of things going on in that orchestra, and you had a fifties version of the Phil Spector wall-of-sound. I’d discover much later that Jimmy Olen was that guitarist, one of a very short line of brilliant men in that role, who were discovered by, and worked for, Johnny Otis. And that the lady up front, the splendid Ms Adams, was originally a gospel singer from Linden, Texas (also birthplace of T-Bone Walker) who switched to secular music in ’52 with recordings for Don Robey’s Houston based Peacock label. I sometimes wonder how many buyers of Ma realised what a gem was sitting on the other side.

But the Johnny Otis Orchestra, originally an impressive seventeen in size, had been in existence since 1945, so it’s evidently time to back up a little.


Johnny Otis poster



Johnny Otis was born Ionnnis Alexandres Veliotes to Greek immigrant parents in Vallejo in the North Bay region of San Francisco, but he grew up in the city of Berkeley where his father owned a grocery store. It was in this largely black neighbourhood that Johnny went to school and started making friends. In his biography of Otis, “Midnight At The Barrelhouse”, George Lipsitz records him as saying, “Everybody I came into contact with as a kid, all my playmates were black.” He went on to say:

“I was around thirteen when the ugly head of racism really reared up. I was told very diplomatically at school by a counsellor that I should associate more with whites. After that I left and never came back to school. I never felt white. I wouldn’t leave black culture to go to heaven. It’s richer, more rewarding and more fulfilling for me.”

As a teenager Johnny took up drumming and subsequently learned piano and vibraphone. His first professional role came in 1939, seated at the drum stool of “Count” Otis Matthews and his West Oakland House Rockers, a very rough and ready outfit which performed at functions in the Oakland and Berkeley areas. On more than one occasion, Johnny has told the world that it was from this band that he picked up that rhythm that most of us call the ‘Bo Diddley Beat’ or what’s sometimes referred to as, shave and a haircut, two bits. Unfortunately, the House Rockers were never captured on record so we have no direct confirmation of this source (but read on).

Moving on from the House Rockers, Johnny, who changed his name sometime in this period, began a seemingly on/off love affair with more sophisticated forms of music. There’s a report that, while attending a Count Basie concert, he was so taken by the drumming of Jo Jones, that he embarked on an intensive study of drums. Over the years, Johnny has talked about music for the head and the heart and reconciliation of the two. He started to move about geographically, working with ‘territory bands’, playing a much wider range of music from jump blues to relatively complex jazz, sometimes in multi-instrument orchestras (and I mean real ones, because the term was used rather widely in those days).

Not only was he gaining in musical experience, he was also picking up contacts. According to the Johnny Otis website, it was Nat “King” Cole and Jimmy Witherspoon who recommended him to join Harlan Leonard’s Kansas City Rockets who had a residency in the Club Alabam in Los Angeles. And it was L.A. with its rich post-war musical environment of artists, clubs and independent record labels, that would be his base from 1943 onwards. Before too long, Johnny had embarked upon the hard graft of putting his own band together and finding enough gigs to be able to financially support it (and, I would guess, prevent band members being poached).

The thirteenth of September, 1945 was his date with destiny: a recording session had been booked with Excelsior Records, one of the many such outfits that had been set up round about the time the Second World War ended. For the session he’d assembled a magnificent sixteen piece band not including himself. Four songs were recorded. Two were slow blues sung by the already very well established Jimmy Rushing. The remaining pair which were relegated to B-sides (presumably on the assumption that the Rushing name would help sell the records), were instrumentals, one created for the session, Preston Love’s Mansion, and one oldie/standard, Harlem Nocturne. It was the last number that caught the ear of record buyers and started the process of establishing the Otis name with the wider public outside the music industry. This is the 78, scratches and all. The plaintive alto sax playing comes from 18-year-old René Bloch who went on to play with bands led by Charlie Barnet, Harry James and Perez Prado – he was on the Prado hit Cherry Pink And Apple Blossom White.

R&B name spotters might be interested to know that Bill Doggett was on piano for the session; later to have a crossover hit on the pop chart with Honky Tonk.

Here also, is the first of the two Jimmy Rushing sides, My Baby’s Business, benefitting from some full and fruity horn fills. It was in the true jump blues double entendre lyrical tradition.

Her steak is nice and tender
You’ll never find it tough
You’re always craving more
Though you know you’ve got enough

Attempts to replicate the success of Harlem Nocturne with more jazz flavoured instrumentals filled the next year or so but none had quite the magic and they didn’t achieve the same success. Otis didn’t ignore vocal blues entirely and there were sides recorded with Joe Turner and early jazz blues singer Ivie Anderson which didn’t see release at the time.

In 1947, along with band leader and friend Bardu Ali, Johnny opened a new night club called the Barrelhouse in the Watts district of L.A. One of their innovations in the club was a Thursday night talent competition. On a night later that same year a guitarist from Oklahoma turned up, as also did a vocal outfit, the A-Sharp Trio who’d got together at Alameda High School. The guitarist, Pete Lewis, won the first prize plus a place in the Johnny Otis band. The singing threesome picked up the second place plus a slot in the club on weekends. A year or two later, with groups like the Orioles and the Ravens picking up sales and serious attention (though the qualifier “doo wop” wasn’t yet used to describe such groups), Johnny hit on the idea of adding Ulysses “Bobby” Nunn to the trio. While he was also able to sing baritone, Bobby added the missing bass part to the existing two tenors and baritone set up. What’s more, Bobby was already working at the club. These were the boys who would later be known as the Robins.

Back to that guitar man. Pete Lewis might just be the most unsung guitarist in the history of the blues. Otis took him into a recording studio and, amongst other songs, recorded two numbers which were tributes to the Barrelhouse club, one with Lewis and one without. Neither was anything like Harlem Nocturne. The distort at the start of Midnight In The Barrelhouse was almost the Lewis trademark though he could do soft and pretty when it was called for. Such sounds had not been heard before (and I’ve said that before). Many assume that it was guys like Willie Johnson and M.T. Murphy working with Howlin’ Wolf in Memphis in ’51/’52 who pioneered such techniques. I don’t want to detract from those gentlemen. They were great. But they weren’t first. Take a listen:

What would see release as the flip side, Barrelhouse Stomp, was definitely second best of the pair but only because (a) it didn’t have the amazing Mr. Lewis and (b) it was the sort of thing that other bands were doing at the time. What it did have though was (c) more sheer ferocity than other bands and (d) another Otis discovery “Big” Jay McNeely on scorching tenor sax.

There were other goodies recorded at that session. The A-Sharp Trio Plus One appearing (for one time only as it would later transpire) as the Four Bluebirds got their first outing on My Baby Done Told Me. Don’t know how to describe it, just listen. They didn’t get a name check on the flip, Courtroom Blues, but those voices had to come from someone. And this was just the sort of thing that would have had the young Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller sitting up and taking interest.


One name that flitted in and out of blues history was that of Joe Swift. He recorded with Red Callender’s Quintet in 1947 and was then hired as male vocalist with the Otis band, appearing on several records in ’48. He then moved on to record with the Marvin Johnson orchestra and subsequently disappeared off the music scene altogether. One of the records he made with the Otis orchestra was That’s Your Last Boogie which was a pleasing but otherwise unremarkable medium tempo stop time jumper with a kind of latin thing going on in the backing. Listen closely to that latin thing though. History books/blogs etc. don’t seem to have told us that this could be the first spotting of the famed Bo Diddley beat on record. OK, it’s on claves or one of those weird rhythm instruments, but it’s still that beat, and this was years before the mighty Diddley walked through the doors at Chess Records.

That record is also worthy of note because it gave Johnny and Joe a #10 placing in the R&B Chart, a sign of things to come.

Mention of percussion instruments reminds me that it was also in this timeframe that Johnny accidentally cut off several of his fingertips whilst working in his wood shop – I’ve made zero mention of his artistic skills so far. He had been appearing on piano as well as drums in the band but this caused him to switch to vibes due to loss of manual dexterity.



In 1949, a 13-year-old girl named Esther Mae Jones walked through the door at one of the Barrelhouse talent nights. Otis was impressed and cut a couple of sides with her that September, though they didn’t see release until the following year. Both were excellent, and frankly, unbelievable coming from someone of that tender age. On the records she was rechristened as Little Esther but the world would know her later as Esther Phillips. I couldn’t decide which of the clips to include so here are both, I Gotta Guy and Mean Ole Gal. In addition to Esther, note the embellishments from Pete Lewis:


The reader will spot the Modern label shown on the first of the clips. By now Otis product, if I can call it that, since it was expanding to a range of artists in addition to himself, was starting to appear on a rapidly growing number of labels – Excelsior, Exclusive, Savoy, Modern, Peacock and more, albeit mainly L.A. based indies. This situation would continue and non L.A. based labels like Federal of Cincinnati would come into the frame. Johnny operated as A&R man for the King/Federal grouping for several years and it was in that role he would discover Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Little Willie John.

Back to 1950, an auspicious year for Mr. Otis. January saw the release of Double Crossing Blues which was credited to the “Johnny Otis Quintette with Vocals By The Robins and Little Esther”. Recorded on the first of December the previous year when Esther was still only 13, it was the debut single for the young lady – the earlier recordings would see release slightly further down the track. It certainly caught the ear of the black record buyers of L.A. and beyond resulting in the first R&B Chart #1 for both Johnny and Esther. And it held that position for nine weeks. Perhaps part of the attraction was the inclusion of street style repartee from Esther and Bobby Nunn of the Robins (and I should record my thanks to Marv Goldberg & Todd Baptista who drew my attention to this – and its meaning – in their blog on the Robins).

Esther: You belong out in the forest fighting a big old grizzly bear.
Bobby: How come you ain’t out in the forest?
Esther: I’m a lady!
Bobby: They got lady bears out there!

“Of course, to fully understand why the song was as big a hit as it was, you need to know that “lady bear” was black slang for an ugly woman who was sexually aggressive!”

Such street dialogue was generated by one J. Otis and added to the original song as submitted.

It’s a record that tends to get in articles and books on black vocal groups and doo wop. While the Robins, apart from Bobby, didn’t do a lot more than um and ah in the background, the record was considerably more bluesy than other outings from such groups to date, and, of course, its chart status did make it stand out. To the unprepared listener, something else that stood out was the sound of that vibraphone from Johnny, a relatively unusual instrument to appear on blues records but one that would be almost omnipresent from now on.

Johnny Otis hit the R&B Top Ten with ten records in 1950. While a couple of these were flips, that’s still an amazing achievement. Seven of them featured Little Esther on lead vocal. Bobby Nunn and the Robins moved elsewhere due to disputes with Otis on money. But Mel Walker, another graduate of the Barrelhouse entry system, and no mean singer in the Charles Brown ‘cool’ style, joined Esther on the duets. Mel deserves a clip, so here’s Cry Baby, another of those 1950 chart entries. That’s Pete Lewis in smooth mode on guitar. And those gentlemen who creep in on background vocal about two thirds of the way through were called the Bluenotes, yet another name for the Robins. This session was held before their departure.

By now Mr. Otis had put the show on the road, travelling usually with a couple of lead vocalists, normally Mel and Esther, plus a vocal group and a much trimmed-down band. This all assisted in the process of shifting records and it didn’t do any harm to the cash flow. Other bands/orchestras were also cutting back due the financial overheads but Otis was unique in providing a palette of vocal colours to give the audience variety.

Esther left the employ of Johnny Otis at the end of 1950, again due to payment issues. This was a common theme but it was industry wide rather than peculiar to Otis. She took her producer, Ralph Bass, with her when she moved to her new label, Federal, but the hits stopped as suddenly as they’d started. Over time, she did manage to restart her career with a new name, Esther Phillips but that’s outside the scope of this article.

For Johnny though, R&B Chart hits continued through to 1952 but dropped to a much lower frequency from the giddy heights of 1950. He certainly wasn’t averse to cashing in on a popular craze as he showed with Mambo Boogie in 1951, reflecting that short lived burst of enthusiasm for Cuban dance music that hit New York City in ’51/’52. Nor was he averse to going back to real jazz, something he was personally enthusiastic about. Witness this version of Stardust from tenor sax ace Ben Webster fronting a sizeable Otis band. A little beauty, in my view:

In January ’51, Otis cut a number of tracks with Linda Hopkins, a lady with a big voice and a strong gospel background, which facts probably weren’t unrelated. Here she is on Warning Blues, a much heavier slow blues than the more insinuating style of Little Esther.



and it got longer than intended as I wrote it – please feel free to skip if you’re not a paid-up guitar freak.

If I’ve given the impression that Johnny’s band members and singers only stuck with him for a short while (or for as long as it took to get him/her/them noticed) that wasn’t entirely true. His guitarists were a relatively faithful bunch; there were only three during his main productive period; that is, 1947 through to the sixties, and in the case of the last of the three, his son Shuggie Otis, well beyond. Preceding Shuggie were Pete “Guitar” Lewis, who I’ve already had something of a rave over, and Jimmy Nolen. Since neither is likely to be given the honour of a Toppermost of his own, I felt that some words here wouldn’t go amiss.

Lewis seemed to have appeared from nowhere only to disappear into nowhere. It is believed that he was born Carl Lewis in Oklahoma City in 1913, but had not registered with anything of note anywhere until he turned up on one of the Otis talent nights. It’s reported that he left the Otis band in ’56 due to rows with Johnny over his increasing usage of alcohol. The last lines in his Wiki biography read “… by the mid-1960’s Lewis had been reduced to homelessness. He is believed to have died in Los Angeles in 1970.”

We’ve already had some examples of Pete Lewis at work with the Otis band but I’d like to add a few more. Firstly an unusual duet between axe and sax – Pete plus the ineffable Ben Webster on One Nighter Blues:

They did something not dissimilar, but with Webster in even more rotgut mode, on Goomp Blues from the same session in ’51. Secondly, from back in ’49, another instrumental dominated by Lewis, Hangover Blues, dating from the pre-vibes days. Relentless but innovative stuff, and if anything could match that title, this did.

Outside of the Otis recordings, Lewis only recorded a few singles for Federal circa ‘52/’53 plus one after he left the Otis band. I’ve picked Harmonica Boogie for your delectation since it shows that he wasn’t a slouch on this instrument either:

Underneath the clip of Pete’s Back Door Troubles (from the Federal Recordings) on YouTube there’s a long Comment from an M Saint, which starts with:

“Pete came to Bakersfield CA to live in 1960. I met him there around 1962 when I was 17. He was no longer with Johnny Otis but had his own band up there. I joined his band as a young pianist and water boy. He taught me how to play guitar and harmonica, and how to shoot jack rabbits (we were so poor that was just about all we ate).”

The Comment ends with the words:

“Pete was still alive when I left Bakersfield but was going down slow. I don’t know what ever happened to him and I’ve been unable to trace his family or find out where he’s buried. If anyone has info please get in touch with me.”

Lewis’ replacement, Jimmy Nolen, was more of a known quantity when he was taken on. Also emanating from Oklahoma City, but that’s pure coincidence as far as I know, he’d already recorded several sessions for Federal before Otis offered him a job. The main influence for both artists was T-Bone Walker and the Southern California/Texas electric guitar tradition that he founded, only with Pete and Jimmy it just came out differently. Here’s Jimmy showing definite T-Bone touches not to mention a ringing guitar sound on Strollin’ With Nolen, one of the Federal tracks.

The first session held with the Otis band plus Jimmy, produced The Midnite Creeper Parts 1 & 2. Two parters were fashionable in R&B and rock instrumentals.

In general, though, Jimmy was used more in a rhythm role with Otis, which will become more apparent when I get to the Capitol rock and roll tracks. After he left the band (in ’59) his most notable stint was his five years with James Brown, from 1965 to 1970. That period coincided largely with the Brown resurgence as king of funk, and the chicken scratch that Nolen invented was a significant part of that. Take a listen to Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag. Jimmy’s in there on those choppy chords and that’s him on those rapid flurries at the end of each verse – sixteen Eb Ninths I am reliably informed.

Recording by Otis was more sporadic in the first half of the sixties but there were two sessions held in late Autumn 1961 – one in October and the other in November, on which, reportedly (see final Footnote) two guitarists named as Johnny Watson and Johnny Rogers were used. On one of the issued tracks, Early In The Morning Blues (King 5690), an instrumental of the type often called scorching, the guitar work sounds very much as if it could have come from Johnny “Guitar” Watson:

Johnny’s son Shuggie started playing guitar on record with his father from the age of 15 (or it might have been 14; I’m not absolutely sure when they went into the studio to put together the tracks that went to form Cold Shot, released in ’69 but recorded the year before), but he’d been part of the stage show from well before that time. He continued playing with Johnny for years although the recording dates for Otis Senior became less frequent. Shuggie, however, went on to become a cult favourite. Albums like Freedom Flight (1971) and Inspiration Information (1974) helped cement that reputation. Johnny was producer on the first, and executive producer on the second – Shuggie himself was producer, indeed he did almost everything on that set including playing a whole load of instruments and writing all the songs.



I’ve already stated that Johnny’s discography is far from straightforward. If you add into that the records he appeared on from other artists, plus those records that he produced often with himself and/or the band or band members in support, usually, but not always, with artists that he discovered, then it gets ridiculously complex, but delightfully so. I’m kicking off this section with a couple of appearances only. These were jobs that he took on, not only for the cash which would obviously been helpful, but also for the sheer joy in doing so.

Way back in Spring 1946 he was present on drums on a number of recordings from one of his big heroes, the great Lester Young. Johnny admired both the execution of Young’s flights of improvisation (which he, Otis, attempted to emulate on piano and vibes) and his personal style including his idiosyncratic use of language:

Back in September the previous year, Johnny entered another L.A. studio with Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers – Moore on guitar, Eddie Williams on bass and Charles Brown on vocal and piano – and recorded four numbers. One of those numbers, Drifting Blues, established the reputation of the trio and particularly Charles Brown, whose soft intimate vocal style would become the in thing in the clubs of Los Angeles.

Moving on to those discoveries, one of the more notable ones was Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, who auditioned for Johnny in Houston in 1952 when he was working for Peacock Records. Her Hound Dog came from a session set up in L.A. in August 1952 (though it didn’t see release till the following year). Unusually, Otis banished the horn section on the record, leaving in place a minimal arrangement based on a riff that Pete Lewis had developed in the studio. The record is still mired in controversy after all these years. How much of the song, if any, did Otis write –the record label has the writers as J. Leiber, M. Stroller (sic!) and J. Otis, and how much of the production, if any, was down to Leiber and Stoller? Regardless of all that it’s still a remarkable record, and, for anyone who’s coming to it afresh, completely different to the Presley version (see footnotes 14 and 15).

Johnny Ace’s Pledging My Love has special significance for the US record buying public which isn’t the case anywhere outside the US of A; another reflection on the fact that very few R&B records were released outside the US in the early to mid fifties. It saw US release in December 1954, the same month in which Ace accidentally shot himself and died in his dressing room between sets of a show in Houston, Texas. The event took place on Christmas Day. Both Esther Phillips and Big Mama Thornton, who were on the show, were affected by the death. Getting back to the record, which, with the benefit of hindsight, is seen as one of those influential singles which pointed the way to soul music, it was produced, like its predecessors, by Johnny, and members of his band provided the support with the man himself on vibes. The record achieved posthumous success for Ace, it being the only one of his singles to attain that highly desired crossover from the R&B Chart to the Pop Chart. And the song itself has been covered by a very wide range of artists over the years ranging from Kitty Wells, through Elvis, to Aaron Neville.

Otis was involved both as producer and leader of support band on another record that’s regarded as an important soul precursor, Little Richard’s Directly From My Heart To You in ’56. There’s some great piano work on this one plus a recognisable Pete Lewis on lazily wailing guitar. Richard never managed to get a hit with the song even though he went on to record it for two other labels.

Backtracking slightly, in late 1954, Johnny produced the first disc from his discovery Jamesetta Hawkins. It was also Johnny who gave her the stage name, Etta James. The song went through two changes of title. Initially it was Roll With Me Henry, an answer disc to Hank Ballard’s Work With Me Annie. However, it was thought that might be too close to the bone for radio DJs and not get plays, so it got renamed Dance With Me Henry. White singer Georgia Gibbs then covered it but with a new title, The Wallflower, so Modern – Etta’s label – decided to adopt that title. The song remained the same all the while. For your interest, the male voice i.e. the ‘Henry figure’ who wants to know what he has to do to make Etta/Annie love him, was Richard Berry, composer and original lead singer of Louie Louie. The sax player was Maxwell Davis, veteran of many sessions at Modern, Aladdin and other labels, and also musical director for Percy Mayfield. The record gave Etta, then 15 years old, her first taste of fame.

Moving forward a few years to December 1962, there was a session held with Johnny “Guitar” Watson backed by the Johnny Otis Orchestra (and there’s a likelihood that Otis would have been producer in that case though 45cat doesn’t identify one on the sides that resulted from the session). At this time, Watson was in between his blues and soul/funk incarnations but he shows a delicate soul touch with his version of a Leroy Carr classic (see Footnote 17) issued as In the Evenin’.

There was plenty more extra-curricular activity but I think the above gives a good flavour.



Things were relatively quiet for Otis and the band in the mid fifties. He changed labels a few more times, even started up one himself but nothing seemed to happen hit parade wise. Perhaps he was a little slow getting into the new rock and roll stuff. His old mates, Joe Turner and the Robins, the latter helped by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, weren’t so tardy getting up to speed. To be fair to Johnny, he did make some attempts to ‘get with’ the new music on his own label (Dig Records) but most of these attempts were restricted to the album Rock And Roll Hit Parade Vol.1, much of which consisted of other artists’ songs – Long Tall Sally, Only You, Earth Angel etc. – given Woolworths style soundalike makeovers. And yes, they really were that uninteresting. Sorry Johnny, you didn’t get everything right. What was of interest though, was that Johnny himself appeared vocally on some of the singles along with new singers Mel Williams, Arthur Lee Mays and the Jayos. The album might not have sold a lot but it or, maybe more likely, the neverending stage show, convinced one of the big boys on the record scene, Capitol Records, to take a punt on Johnny. Judging by the billing the band were given on Capitol Singles – The Johnny Otis Show – it was the latter.

Jazz and blues purists might have turned up their noses (and might still do so) at the new sound as heard on the first single from the Johnny Otis Show, Can’t You Hear Me Callin’, released in September ’57, but it was unashamedly aimed at the average record buyer, the one who made records soar up the Hot 100. It was pitched somewhere between rock and roll – hints of a toned back Little Richard – and teen pop, but executed with confidence. Otis himself was on vocal, something we’d start to get used to.

The follow-up, Ma (He’s Making Eyes At Me), with vocal from Marie Adams, takes us back to the beginning. It was better than its predecessor, more ‘real’ sounding rather than manufactured but it did zilch sales wise in the US whilst climbing to #2 in the UK. It was kept off the top spot here by Harry Belafonte’s big selling Mary’s Boy Child.

Johnny Otis Show Willie And The Hand Jive

It took Johnny several more records to come up with a formula that worked in the US, but he did. Willie And The Hand Jive would have hit a very high percentage of radio listeners at the time as a totally new sound, although all those black buyers who’d been listening to, and buying, a certain Bo Diddley, since that eponymous record occupied their own airwaves, would probably have seen this as little more than an attempt to cash in. Johnny, of course, saw it as a wholly legitimate airing of the Count Matthews House Rockers beat from over a decade ago which, after all, had never found its way onto record. It’s a record on which the skills of Jimmy Nolen come apparent, an ear-catching intro, then great clangy electric chords, all in addition to that delicious choppy rhythm. It was the first time Mr. Nolen had been given his head in the Otis environment and the record benefitted massively from his contribution. But Johnny gave us some lovely nonsense lyrics too.

Doctor and the lawyer and the Indian chief
Now they all did that crazy beat
Way Out Willie gave them all a treat
When he did that hand jive with his feet

I’ve passed over the usual more popular live clip (even though it does have the Three Tons Of Joy hand jiving) because the song is taken too quickly and the sound is muffled.

This one managed the converse of Ma in terms of chart success; Top Ten in the US but nothing in the UK, perhaps it was too alien.

Johnny subsequently attempted the usual Record Man’s trick of following Hand Jive with not one but several similar sounding efforts. This trick had worked very well back in 1950 when records like Deceiving Blues and Mistrusting Blues with Little Esther on lead vocal showed a strong likeness to the first big R&B Chart hit, Double Crossing Blues, though they were perfectly good records in their right. It didn’t work quite so well this time, though once again there were some good records (and a bit of low end chart action). I’d single out the successor to Hand Jive, Crazy Country Hop plus Castin’ My Spell as favourites though Mumblin’ Mosie and Three Girls Named Molly Doin’ The Hully Gully get honourable mentions – the latter mainly because of its title. I’d nominate Castin’ My Spell as being of special interest. The beat is less obviously Diddley/Count Matthews but both lyrically and in terms of vocal delivery it has strong echoes of old New Orleans, that voodoo New Orleans that Dr. John evoked so well in his ’68 album Gris Gris.

The best records from the period were characterised by two things: the presence of Johnny Otis himself as vocalist and increasingly inventive songwriter – while he borrowed and modified phrasing and stories from the black tradition, he made them palatable for a white audience even if that did, at times, mean dumbing down – and the sheer ubiquity of the Nolen guitar; it was almost as if the horn section hadn’t bothered to turn up.


I took a black cat, a cave bat, and threw them in a pot pot, pot pot, pot pot
I took a blue snake, a green snake, and tied them in a knot knot, knot knot, knot knot

The vocal on Castin’ My Spell was attributed to Johnny Otis and Marci Lee though Ms Lee isn’t strongly vocally visible since the duo sing in unison all the way through. The only reference I’ve been able to find to this lady was/is in the Way Back Attack blog on Otis wherein the author states: “… Castin’ My Spell, a delightful voodoo-just-for-fun song featuring another of Johnny’s female discoveries, Marci Lee”. She’s there again on one end of the line on the flip, the more teen-oriented Telephone Baby wherein Johnny, on his end, is getting progressively more randy (via the usual euphemisms, I hasten to add).



The hits fizzled out after a couple of years or so and the early to mid sixties weren’t exactly jam-packed with interesting record releases. The neverending tour kept rolling though and Johnny continued to be involved in multiple other activities, some completely outside music. But in 1969 he released two albums, highly unusual as that was more than there had been in the whole previous decade.

The first of this pair was entitled Cold Shot and was credited to the Johnny Otis Show. In fact the core team was Otis, his son Shuggie on guitar and bass, plus vocalist Delmar “Mighty Mouth” Evans, plus a few more players including Don “Sugarcane” Harris on some of the tracks. The material, with one exception, was a mixture of new songs/blues workouts with several oldies or blues standards. One track was a rewrite of Sweet Home Chicago with a new punch line. Young Shuggie performed very capably throughout without doing anything overly spectacular. One of the tracks from the set, Country Girl, released as a single, squeezed its way up to #29 in the R&B Chart.

The Signifying Monkey is the first track on the album. It’s usually referred to as one of the relatively rare examples on record of “The Dozens” wherein black characters trade insults with each other in a ritualised format. Another good example of the form is Say Man from Bo Diddley from 1959, in which Bo and Jerome take turns goading each other over a one chord rhythmic backing. That record is often quoted as an early form of rap. On Signifying Monkey, which strides along to a blues funk rhythm, “Mighty Mouth” Evans narrates the story of the monkey, again in near rap mode, interspersed with bouts of guitar work from Shuggie. It’s effective, though I’d warn the potential listener that there’s explicit language right from the outset.

I’d add a couple of comments:

Otis had shown some interest in ethnomusicology before with Castin’ My Spell. But that was merely scratching the surface. This one goes considerably deeper showing the immense interest he had in the origins of black culture. I’ve added more in the Footnotes.

One should put this in the context of the 1965 Watts Riot, which took place in what one might call Johnny Otis’ back yard in L.A., and the Black Power movement which reached new heights of militancy in the late sixties/early seventies.

It’s very likely that the artistic success of Signifying Monkey – probably not surprisingly it wasn’t released as a single so there’s no real measure of commercial success – spurred Otis on to produce the Snatch and the Poontangs eponymous album. Signifying Monkey Part 2 occupied pole position on this one followed by numbers of greater or lesser (though mainly much greater) profanity to a bluesy backdrop. Tracks ranged from a ribald song called Shine set to the tune of Willie And The Hand Jive, to an item entitled Two Girls In Love (With Each Other) which consisted of four minutes plus of a couple of ladies uttering what were intended to be orgasmic moans with Shuggie’s guitar noodling – quite pleasingly I should add – in the background. Was this a step too far? For me the answer would be yes. I’m certainly prepared to believe that music resembling some of these tracks – not all – would have been played in black clubs and then, if a recording opportunity turned up, such numbers would be, at least in part, cleaned up. Think Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti, the Dominoes’ Sixty Minute Man, or even Etta James’ Roll With Me Henry. But this album is not something I’d play too often, though it does have a cult following.


Johnny Otis Shoe Live At Monterey



In 1970 Johnny was invited to perform at the prestigious Monterey Jazz Festival and the results were preserved in double LP format. Alongside the Otis band and its regular performers at the time, Delmar “Mighty Mouth” Evans, Gene “The Mighty Flea” Connors and Shuggie, he had a comprehensive who’s who of the jump blues era comprising Esther Phillips (of course), Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Joe Turner, Ivory Joe Hunter, Roy Milton and Pee Wee Crayton. I’m happy to say that I own the set and I closed my Amazon review of the Live At Monterey CD with the following words:

“I’ve seen US reviews referring to this concert as one of the best ones to be captured on record. They could well have a point. It was late in their careers for many of the participants but by god did they rise to the occasion, and Johnny and his band gave them just the right kind of platform to do so.”

A portion of the performance was featured in the Clint Eastwood film Play Misty For Me. There’s also some delightful footage from the festival on YT, featuring first, Eddie Vinson with Cleanhead’s Blues followed by (Little) Esther Phillips with Release Me. We’re lucky to have it since there’s not a lot of live stuff from the Johnny Otis Show on Youtube.

That seems as good a place as any to stop. I trust I’ve said enough to justify that “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues” tag, but what about that “Renaissance Man”? Put it like this:

– He had four books published. The first, “Listen To The Lambs” (1968) was largely a reaction to, and a discussion of, the significance of the Watts Riot. This was followed by a musical memoir, “Upside Your Head!: Rhythm And Blues On Central Avenue” (1993). He followed this with “Colors And Chords” (1995) which was devoted to his artworks, and the final one “Red Beans & Rice And Other Rock ‘n’ Roll Recipes” (1997), a cook book – he was an accomplished chef.

– He ran a regular radio show, and later, TV show.

– He devoted considerable attention to the civil rights movement. In the sixties he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the California State Assembly and served on the staff of Mervyn M. Dymally who became California’s first black Lieutenant Governor.

– He was ordained as a minister in the seventies and opened a non-denominational church. His work included feeding the homeless.

– In the early nineties he became an organic farmer and opened a grocery store (like his father) to sell his produce including his own brand of apple juice. The store also served as a club where he and his band – mainly family members – performed.

Is that enough?

Back in the sixties he served as musical mentor to white guitarist Roy Buchanan. Let’s let Johnny, Shuggie and Roy (and a few horns) play us out:

Goin’ back to L.A., sweetest place I know

Due to the length of this article, I’m eschewing a Quotes section but felt I should include this one from Johnny himself:

“Genetically, I’m pure Greek, psychologically, environmentally, culturally, by choice, I’m a member of the black community.” Johnny Otis quoted in the San Jose Mercury News in 1994

Within the Footnote below on record labels, I could have included a comment along the lines of “A goodly number of the entrepreneurs who set up these indies came from immigrant stock to the US.” Names like Ahmet Ertegun (Atlantic), the Chess brothers, Syd Nathan (King), the Bihari brothers (Modern) and more. Johnny Otis should be looked on as being as important as any of these gentlemen – it was an almost, but not quite, exclusively male world – in terms of fostering and developing black music, but he did something those other folk did not do: he actively participated in that music, providing us, the listeners, with a wonderful picture of the black sounds of America, from jump blues to swing, doo wop to soul, and blues in all its guises. There is simply no comparison to Johnny in the whole history of popular music. He was unique.



1. That “we” in my second sentence was incorrect. Cal Taylor, whose research can often be more diligent than mine, has dug out the fact that Otis had his Harlem Nocturne released on 78 RPM on Parlophone in the UK in 1950. The flip was Jam Man from Slim Gaillard.

2. The “Workers’ Playtime” radio show was transmitted by the BBC between 1941 and 1964. Originally it was on the Home Service (equivalent to Radio 4 I’m informed) and then switched to the Light Programme (Radio 2). I read in Wiki that it was originally intended to be a morale booster for industrial workers, something I wasn’t aware of. It wasn’t something I deliberately listened to but it often happened to be on, regardless.

3. Anne Shelton was a lovely British lady of slightly statuesque proportions (or is that my faulty memory?) who entertained us with stirring songs in that pre rock and roll period, though to be fair to the lady she did have a couple of hits well after rock and roll should have won the day. Bully for her. I still recall her singing to her soldier boy “Lay down your arms and surrender to mine”. I cannot say for sure whether she ever appeared on “Workers’ Playtime”. Put it down to me fantasising.

4. On other Toppermosts I have attempted to include snippets of information on record labels within the footnotes, largely because it was those independent record labels that drove the music forward. And it wasn’t just the Suns, the Atlantics and the Chess’s, there were masses of even smaller but still vital outfits trying to earn a buck and just happening to record fabulous music at the same time. On this Toppermost there are just too many labels to try and cover (though many of them are in Wiki I’m happy to say). I would just say that when Otis René set up the Excelsior label in Los Angeles, his brother Leon set up Exclusive Records and the pair purchased a shellac record pressing plant between them. The plant was OK for 78s but no good for 45s so both brothers got out of the business at that time.

5. Jimmy Rushing, whose name has rather faded now other than to fans, was featured vocalist with the Count Basie band from 1935 to 1948. Known as “Mr. Five By Five” (five feet high, five feet wide), he was active in music from 1924 until a year before his death in 1972, aged 70.

6. Preston Love was a saxophonist originally from Omaha, Nebraska, whose name is known mainly by jazz aficionados. He played in the Count Basie band amongst others prior to leading a band himself. In the sixties he became Motown’s West Coast band leader and toured with many of the big names. He was a friend of Johnny Otis and played in his band on and off.

7. The presence of the rather oddball sounding Preston Love’s Mansion on the flip of the first Otis disc does remind me of Phil Spector who had a habit of putting unusually titled instrumentals on flip sides. Whether Phil did this in tribute to Otis, or whether he did it purely to dissuade radio DJs from flipping such discs, who knows, but he was a fan. Otis didn’t do such a thing again; he made full use of both sides of each single.

8. The instrumental Harlem Nocturne was written in 1939 by Earle Hagen and Dick Rogers for the Ray Noble Orchestra of which they were members. I’ve seen it said that it was written in tribute to Johnny Hodges – it is very much a vehicle for a sax player. There are scores, maybe more than a hundred, cover versions, the bulk being by forties and fifties bands but I did spot Mink de Ville in the long Wiki list.

9. Harlem Nocturne often gets referred to as the first Johnny Otis single whereas in fact it was the second. It’s catalogue number was Excelsior 142 preceded by Excelsior 141 which was My Baby’s Business c/w Preston Love’s Mansion. The listing 78 RPM has November 1945 against both so they could have had simultaneous or very close releases.

10. Some time after their experience with Johnny Otis, the Robins got signed by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to a label the pair had started, Spark Records. The first record to come from the group on the label was Riot In Cell Block #9, written and produced by Jerry and Mike. Subsequently there was a switch to Atlantic Records on the east coast. A couple of Robins members decided against the move and three new guys were brought in. The new group was christened the Coasters. But that’s another story.

11. I made reference to the Ravens and the Orioles so a little doo wop history wouldn’t go amiss. The next para is an almost straight lift from “RocknRoll” but I think it does the job:

“In 1946, another black group emerged, initially following the sounds pioneered by the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers and others. This group was the Ravens from New York. They announced the arrival of the Bass Man who was often the star on doo wop records. Jimmy Ricks of the Ravens was the first of that breed. The group also initiated a trend for groups named after birds, hence the Orioles, the Crows, the Larks, the Robins, the Penguins and the Swallows, the Flamingos, the Falcons and more. They also initiated a trend towards more R&B friendly music. The group to make the big move though, were the Orioles, with lead singer Sonny Tilghman (almost invariably shortened to Sonny Til). Their debut single was “It’s Too Soon To Know” and it still sounds just as remarkable today. The backing is almost non-existent and the support singers do little more than hum away in the distance. Sonny carries the track and it’s one of those records that sounds like nothing that had come before it. It’s where all that diligent research on lineage seems to go out the window. But there’s something. A very faint hint of swing may still be around but it’s all but expunged. The group scored some minor hits in the next year or so but their next biggie was “Crying In The Chapel” in 1953. Following a very similar approach but with a better song, this one claimed the #1 spot in the R&B Chart and #11 in the National Pop Chart.”

12. Esther Phillips (or Little Esther as she was known in the Otis days) struggled with heroin addiction over the years but gained a reputation as an excellent soul singer in the sixties. The record that’s heavily associated with her is her version of the country song Release Me. I decided against lengthy paras on her and some other artists in this Toppermost since I see them as candidates in their own right.

13. There’s an interesting and detailed study of James Brown’s guitarists including Jimmy Nolen in the on-line Guitar Player.

14. The release of Hound Dog has the credit “Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton: Kansas City Bill & Orch.”. Although there is some confusion it is generally accepted that it was Otis on drums for this session plus members of his band/orchestra in support. Johnny’s regular drummer was called Leard Bell who was also known as Kansas City Bell. Kansas City Bill was Johnny Otis but as he was contracted to other record companies probably chose a pseudonym for the Hound Dog release on Peacock. To obfuscate matters a little further it is possible, in this deception, that he chose a sobriquet already known to him, Kansas City Bell, and adapted it to Kansas City Bill.

15. Wiki provide an amazingly long and comprehensive article on the record Hound Dog, its answer versions, and the famous Presley version. I’d strongly direct the reader to the article but am summarising below the origin of the Elvis take on the song.

Elvis and members of his band including Scotty Moore saw Freddie Bell and the Bellboys perform the song in a Vegas club. They had totally changed the rhythm – in the process losing the subtlety of the Pete Lewis arrangement – and altered some of the lyrics from racy (that’s if understood by white ears) to humorous/downright silly. For example, “You can wag your tail but I ain’t gonna feed you no more” became “Well you ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine”. Bell and co recorded the song shortly after. Apparently Presley and his management team then decided to record the number but as a parody of the Bell version. The result was virtually a new song with completely changed arrangement, in a style that was dramatically different to the Sun rockabilly records.

For those who don’t know the name, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys were a white sub Bill Haley band who got a showing in the Rock Around The Clock film. The only record I recall from them was officially called Ding Dong, but it was invariably known as Giddy Up A Ding Dong. It was more popular in the UK than the US.

16. Hank Ballard is another guy who deserves a Toppermost of his own. Originally in the Royals – see below – who became the Midnighters, his hit, Work With Me Annie, spawned a number of answer discs not limited to Etta James’ Wallflower/Roll With Me Henry. Buddy Holly’s Midnight Shift was one – “Well Annie’s been a-workin’ on the midnight shift” – and Gene Vincent’s Rollin’ Danny is reputed to be another, though where Danny fits into the Henry/Annie saga I don’t know. Ballard himself recorded several sequels including Annie’s Got A Baby which perhaps wasn’t surprising after all that work!

17. Johnny Watson with the Johnny Otis Orchestra’s In The Evenin’ released in 1963 was a cover of Leroy Carr’s (In The Evening) When The Sun Goes Down. Carr wrote the song and cut it at his last recording session in February 1935, two months before he died aged just 30. What is fascinating about this song is that two years later Robert Johnson wholeheartedly ‘borrowed’ the melody, changed the lyrics and released it as Love In Vain (maybe brought to a wider audience when The Rolling Stones included a version on their Let It Bleed album in 1969). Listen to Leroy Carr and hear yourself singing Love In Vain to it.

18. When the record Willie And The Hand Jive came out there was some accusation of there being a strong resemblance to certain Bo Diddley records, but see comments within main text plus the footnote above – ‘borrowing’ was not an unusual feature within the world of blues; a more attractive way of putting it might have been ‘developing’. There was also an inclination on the part of some critics to see it as more of that double entendre stuff they were familiar with from black R&B artists, with hand jive substituting for masturbation. However the official Johnny Otis website (Johnny Otis World) provides an explanation of the actual source. I would add that Hal Zeiger was Otis’ manager at the time.

“By January of 1958, the Johnny Otis Show were right at the very top of the UK charts. EMI moved quickly and rushed out a duet between Marie and Johnny entitled “Bye Bye Baby”. This cleverly-crafted little rocker headed off into the best sellers, just as Hal Zeiger boarded a plane to London to discuss the arrangements for a Johnny Otis Tour. Unfortunately, the draconian rulings then applied to work permits for musicians prevented any chance of a British visit. Fortunately, Zeiger’s field trip would prove to be beneficial in a totally unexpected way. While he was in the country, he’d noticed how the coffee-bar set were hung up on doing what they called the Hand Jive. What had started as a simple teenage fad had caught on in a big way once the media had gotten ahold of the story. On his return to the States, Zeiger told Otis what he had seen and suggested he write a song all about this craze.”

There’s more but that’s adequate. I would add that I also recall some of the audience on Six Five Special doing this hand jive thing to other music (I think) before the Otis record came out. I’d also comment that, given the not unreasonable suspicion on behalf of music critics about this hand jive stuff, I do wonder whether the later Snatch And The Poontangs album was a two fingers gesture to such august personages.

19. In January 1959, Marie Adams and those tons of joy had a record out in the UK entitled What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For, an obvious attempt by Capitol to make capital (couldn’t resist the pun) from Ma He’s Making Eyes At Me. It wasn’t a hit but did inspire a cover from Emile Ford and the Checkmates who got themselves a brief career out of it.


20. If you google Signifying Monkey then you’ll find two Wiki entries. The first relates to a book “The Signifying Monkey: A Theory Of African American Literary Criticism” which traces the origins of the African-American practice of ‘signifying’. The article includes a definition of signifying from academic and attorney, Bernard Bell – “elaborate, indirect form of goading or insult generally making use of profanity.” Which is certainly relevant to the Snatch/Otis record(s). The second makes reference to African mythology, viz.

“The signifying monkey is a character of African-American folklore that derives from the trickster figure of Yoruba mythology, Esu Elegbara. This character was transported with Africans to the Americas under the names of Exu, Echu-Elegua, Papa Legba, and Papa Le Bas. Esu and his variants all serve as messengers who mediated between the gods and men by means of tricks. The signifying monkey is “distinctly Afro-American” but is thought to derive from Yoruban mythology, which depicts Echu-Elegua with a monkey at his side.”

The article goes on to talk about songs and narratives which feature the signifying monkey insulting his ‘friends’ in the animal kingdom. Generally the monkey gets his comeuppance.

21. Roy Buchanan has recorded an instrumental entitled Blues For Jimmy Nolen.

22. Dylan owns a Johnny Otis artwork.

23. Although Otis wrote many songs, the vast bulk of these were for his own band and retinue of artists plus those he’d discovered, so it’s relatively rare to come across any that don’t seem to meet those criteria. However, Every Beat Of My Heart, a hit for Gladys Knight and The Pips in 1961 is one such. There’s a reason of course. Back in 1952 Otis discovered a vocal group in Detroit called the Royals. He became the group’s manager and got them a contract with the King Records subsidiary, De Luxe. His song, Every Beat Of My Heart, was the first release from the Royals. The lead singer on this track was Charles Sutton, but another group member, Hank Ballard, later took over that role and the group morphed into the Midnighters (for more details see Marv Goldberg on the Royals).

24. Although not credited on the album, Johnny Otis played piano and tambourine on Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats. Zappa was one of his many fans – he even grew a moustache in tribute to his hero (source:“Midnight At The Barrelhouse” written by George Lipsitz, though I’ve not seen the Hot Rats contribution corroborated elsewhere. What isn’t in doubt is that Shuggie Otis played electric bass on the track, Peaches En Regalia).

25. Cal drew my attention to that fact that Linda Hopkins died on April 10, this year, round about the time I was starting to get into this article. This definitely warranted a footnote. Linda started out in gospel music but subsequently recorded, blues, R&B, soul, jazz, classical and show time music. She also had considerable skills as an actress and appeared in multiple Broadway productions. In 1960 she had her only pop/R&B hit, duetting with (Otis discovery) Jackie Wilson on Shake A Hand. However I’ve picked another Wilson/Hopkins song, I Found Love (from 1962). Linda comes in on the second verse. There weren’t many singers who could match Jackie Wilson but Linda did.

26. I deliberated for ages as to whether or not to include any of the Otis produced recordings of ‘other artists’ in my Top Ten selections but eventually decided that Hound Dog (Big Mama Thornton) and Pledging My Love (Johnny Ace) were just too important (and too good) to omit. Other arguments just went out of the window. And if, at some future date, someone decides to generate a Toppermost on either or both of these talented and interesting people, I’d be only too happy to read such document(s).

27 Amongst all the help given to me by Cal Taylor in the production of this article was access to “Blues Records 1943-1970: The Bible Of The Blues Volume Two L to Z” by Mike Leadbitter, Leslie Fancourt & Paul Pelletier, which he, and I, see as the nearest thing to an incontrovertible source on blues records, their dates and artists plus session ‘men’ involved. I’ve only pinpointed Volume Two because Otis happens to fall within it alphabetically. Volume One obviously exists and has been used on checking out sessions on some of the many artists with which Otis was involved. There had been a previous publication called “The Blues Discography 1943-1966” by Mike Leadbitter & Neil Slaven issued in 1968. It had long been proposed to update this work but Leadbitter’s untimely death in 1974, aged 32, brought progress to a halt. I want to use this paragraph to pay tribute to Mike Leadbitter who was the driving force behind these marvellous books. After Mike died there were further complications resulting in the publication of Volume One (A to K) being delayed until 1987 when issued as “Blues Records 1943-1970: A Selected Discography” and Volume Two (L to Z) not emerging until 1994, with Fancourt and Pelletier replacing Slaven in joint authorship with Mike. Mike Leadbitter’s contribution to the recording of Blues history cannot be overstated, we all owe him a debt of gratitude.


Johnny Otis (1921–2012)


Johnny Otis Discography (Rocky 52)

Johnny Otis Discography (45cat)

Johnny Otis Profile on the Today Show (1983)

Johnny Otis: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

“Upside Your Head!: Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue” by Johnny Otis

“Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story” by George Lipsitz

Johnny Otis biography (Apple Music)

Dave Stephens has written over thirty posts for this site. He is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding and Betty Harris.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Little Richard, Little Willie John, Percy Mayfield, Elvis Presley, T-Bone Walker, Frank Zappa

TopperPost #636


  1. Andrew Shields
    Jun 26, 2017

    Dave, thanks for this great and superbly researched piece. Also thought this tribute to Johnny by Dave Alvin might interest you.

  2. Alex Lifson
    Jun 26, 2017

    Great piece. Always thought that his bio had to be the most interesting of almost everyone. I know that Frank Zappa respected him enough to have him as “bandleader” for his Hot Rats era band. All the while this is going on, his brother is a US ambassador abroad. Once again, thank you.

    • Dave Stephens
      Jun 26, 2017

      Andrew and Alex, thank you for those kind words. Thanks also for the Dave Alvin tribute, a heartfelt illustration of the importance of Johnny to later generations. I hope that importance and, indeed, uniqueness came across in my essay. The fact that he made great music himself was almost a bonus on top of all the other things he did.

      • Derrien Patrick
        Apr 29, 2021

        I really enjoyed reading your article. I have a question about one of the artists who worked with J. Otis and whose name never appears in the articles about J. Otis. I want to talk about Cleo Page. Do you have any information on this man? Thank you in advance

        • Dave Stephens
          May 1, 2021

          Please see full reply, headed “To Derrien Patrick” below

  3. james kief
    Apr 3, 2019

    What a wonderful tribute to Johnny Otis. My former sister-in-law, (I try to keep in contact) had the privilege to play music with Johnny for a number of years. I am so thankful for this site providing information on the life of Johnny Otis. Sadly, many are not aware of his accomplishments, and Johnny did not want the spotlight on himself, but on the others. Speaking of Big Mama “Willie Mae” Thornton, if it wasn’t for Johnny Otis’s phone call to Mike Stoller (One of the writers of “Hound Dog”, more than likely there may have never been a song known as “Hound Dog” – Johnny got the ball rolling. Johnny called and asked Mike if he or Jerry Leiber (the other writer of “Hound Dog”), “are you or Jerry familiar with “Willie Mae” Thornton?” Mike’s response was no, and Johnny encouraged them to come over to his house to meet Big Mama. They liked what they were hearing from Big Mama, and both Mike and Jerry went back to Mike’s house, and on the way started putting “Hound Dog” together. They rushed back to Johnny’s house, and started to rehearse “Hound Dog”. At first Big Mama did not want these guys telling her how to sing this song, and at times Johnny Otis had to intervene between them. It’s rather a funny story. Anyway, Big Mama got the groove on, Johnny had the beat (he played the drums), and on Aug 13, 1952 “Hound Dog” was born. It’s Johnny’s band on the original recording, and Johnny Otis is playing the drums. Big Mama had another hit, “Ball And Chain”, which became a big hit for Janis Joplin. Speaking of Etta James, who Johnny Otis discovered at age 15, (according to Etta), his partner at The Barrelhouse club, Bardu Ali discovered Ella Fitzgerald, according to Ella’s songwriter Van Alexander. So much more could be added to the story of Johnny Otis. Here’s a neat fact, The sax guy on Johnny’s “Willie And The Hand Jive” is the same guy who did “The Pink Panther Theme”, Plas Johnson. Speaking of Willie And The Hand Jive, this was a good hit for Eric Clapton. One more fun fact, Aretha Franklin gave one of her Grammys to Little Esther Phillips in March of 1973, because she felt Esther should of won for her music. What a wonderful act of kindness on Aretha’s part. Lastly, speaking of Aretha, she loved the music of Johnny Ace. She sings many of his songs, including the one mentioned above, “Pledging My Love” INCREDIBLE!

    • Dave Stephens
      Apr 6, 2019

      Jim, I want to say thanks from both Cal and myself for that wonderful comment. I loved the story about Big Mama Thornton and the recording of Hound Dog, and get the impression you could tell a goodly number of such tales given the chance. And if anyone needs to double check that story of Aretha Franklin giving her Grammy to Esther Phillips in 1973, this is how Robert Palmer reported it in the New York Times .

  4. James Kief
    Feb 26, 2020

    Oh, Esther Phillips, or “Little Esther Phillips” as Johnny Otis liked to call her. The Beatles thought very highly of Esther. Below is John Lennon introducing her on the Beatles TV Special, Dec 1965. When Paul McCartney was asked on Twitter, “Have you got a favorite cover of one of your tracks?” Paul’s response was, “There are so many that I love it’s difficult to say, but Esther Phillips version of ‘And I Love Him’ comes to mind”. Quite a tribute to Esther from John and Paul!

  5. Dave Stephens
    May 1, 2021

    To Derrien Patrick, we are pleased to hear you enjoyed the Toppermost and we thank you for your question. This is a joint response from both Dave Stephens and Cal Taylor. Neither of us are experts on the subject of Johnny Otis but we’re both fans and own several records by him; we are also fans of, and writers on black music in general and have Toppermost essays in place on other artists. After receiving your question we researched Cleo Page & Johnny Otis and came up with the Stefan Wirz Illustrated Discography and not a lot more. The evidence showed a few songs having been written for the Otis band, with one, “If You Ever Get Lonesome” written by Page and Otis jointly and released with performing credit given to “Preston Love and Orchestra” – this was actually the Otis band using a pseudonym to avoid contractual problems. The record is on YouTube (and you might have discovered the clip). It can also be found in 45cat with a year of 1955 (and no date given). It was the flip side to a number entitled “Groove Juice” written by Otis. And that’s all we know about the record.
    We haven’t found any evidence of Page and Otis directly performing music together and that’s why Page’s name doesn’t come up in Johnny Otis’ discographies. However, there is evidence of a connection between the two for a very short period from late-1955 into 1956. This is covered in the Wirz discography.
    Whether there is an Otis expert you could put your question to, we’re not sure but have come up with one possible name. There are two biographical type books featuring Johnny Otis according to Amazon UK. They are: “Upside Your Head! Rhythm & Blues On Central Avenue”, an autobiography written by Otis with George Lipsitz, and, “Midnight At The Barrelhouse”, a biography written by Lipsitz. We attempted to use Google Books to search on “Cleo Page” but it was only available on the first book and gave a “not found”. However, George Lipsitz is still alive. According to Wikipedia, he is “an American Studies scholar and professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara”, and this site confirms that this is the correct man. We would imagine he would be contactable via the university.

    • patrick derrien
      May 3, 2021

      Dave Stephens, It’s really nice of you to have done some research, but yes, these are leads I know. That’s the problem with Cleo Page, he doesn’t leave much of a trail anywhere. But after spending several years researching, I have managed to gather a lot of information that I will publish at the end of my work.
      Thank you again for your help. Pat

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