Missing Johnny Otis

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Johnny Otis by Jay Blakesberg

I did not always like early rock ‘n’ roll. This may strike some as strange given the past 25 years of nigh apostolic championing of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, et al. my acquaintances have endured from me, and I have Johnny Otis to thank for this life enriching musical awakening.

In the mid-1980s, my listening swung between 60s modal jazz, punk rock (West Coast and U.K.), a growing interest in Krautrock and prog, Grateful Dead, and an abiding Beatles fixation that had spread dramatically to the Fabs’ solo work. Nowhere on my radar were rock’s early pioneers, let alone the jump blues, feisty country and hot jazz that helped usher rock into the world. So, one post-work early evening, baked to the beejeezus on old school Thai stick (yes, the kind that actually came to one wrapped around a stick with “Rasta hair”), kicking it in my shitbag summer rental house a few blocks from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park, I heard crazy jungle drums coming from the beach. Just blazed enough to circumvent reason, I leapt into my flip-flops and quick-zombie shuffled towards the sound. As I got closer to the rides and fragrant carnival smells, I figured out it was a tune I’d heard many times on oldies radio tooling around with my grandfather as a kid – “Willie and the Hand Jive.” Johnny Otis and his band were cooking away on the beachfront bandstand, one of the Boardwalk’s free summer concerts in a series that regularly featured the likes of Herman’s Hermits, Chubby Checker and former hit makers (and since replaced by Eddie Money, Starship and other 80s nostalgia acts). But this was different. Johnny had a devilish grin and the musicians were putting their backs into it. No one had to tell you the song had certain vulgar insinuations – it felt dirty and made one want to rip off some comely stranger’s panties and go to town. Memory has erased any other specifics of their set but the feeling of discovery, the sense I had come face-to-face with rock’s ground floor, or perhaps its mojo basement, has never left me in the intervening years.

Cold Shot Album

The next day I scoured the used record bins for Otis’ work and came away with two extremes – a compilation of early Savoy Records sides from the late 40s/early 50s (which in turn hipped me to Little Esther and The Robins) and 1969’s Cold Shot!, which mixed up funk, soul and blues in a rough & tumble way that made chestnuts like “High Heel Sneakers” and “C.C. Rider” relevant to my early twenties self. Not long after this, I found a boss anthology of Johnny Otis Show hits from the 50s/60s, and snickered at the novelty numbers but still dug the primal nature of Otis’ music in most regards, which opened me up to what Elvis Presley and the rest of the Sun Records boys had to offer, as well as fellow jump blues killers like Wynonie Harris and Big Joe Turner. Through Otis, I discovered a whole world of foundational music that unlocked rock’s inner workings for me. Some artists are gateways into a fuller world where our whole cultural conversation is enriched and awakened. For me and countless others, one suspects, Johnny Otis was such an artist. And he looked cool as hell doing it, too!

Otis' 1993 Autobiography

I never saw Johnny perform again. Bad timing, other commitments, etc. got in the way, but I remained fascinated with the man long after that Santa Cruz zap. I became an avid listener to his KPFA radio show, which in turn influenced my own 13 years as a public radio DJ, where I adopted some of his style of telling stories about songs during the back announce, doing my part to enrich the listening experience for anyone interested in going below the surface. I drove out to his restaurant/apple juice market in Sebastopol, CA a few times and was lucky enough to always be there when Johnny was kicking around, talking to folks and extolling the virtues of his squeezings. I doubt I ever made much of an impression but I did get to shake his hand and thank him for making me see the light about early rock and R&B. He even steered me towards some primo albums each time we spoke. A gentleman and inescapably a real man – there was something hirsute and rugged about him that made one want to “man up” after being in his presence, though I imagine the ladies had their own reactions. But I digress. I also once attended a service at the Landmark Community Gospel Church, which Otis founded and preached at, backed by a smoking hot band that included several family members. I was welcomed but rightfully regarded as the long haired lookie loo I was, though I came away with a better understanding of how Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart could come from the same bloodline.

In the 1990s, I went on to read Otis’ autobiographies, floored anew by his pioneering social work and pull-no-punches crusade against racism. I found profound respect for his dedication to showmanship married to ethics, a champion for the idea that one could have fun without it being at someone else’s expense. Perversely, I think I came to love the man and his work even more when one of my radio pals at KALX, Berkeley turned me onto the hidden Johnny Otis gem Snatch and the Poontangs, an album cut after hours during the same sessions as Cold Shot and filled with truly filthy blues based on the tradition of The Dozens. Finding this unabashedly earthy side to Otis long after I admired the man for so many other reasons made him even better-rounded for me, and made me wonder if there was anything he couldn’t do if he put his mind to it. While I’ve often fallen short of his example, he looms in the back of my mind as model for how one can live a fulfilled life that does some good for others.

On January 17, 2012, Johnny Otis passed away. He was 90-years-old. I cried when I heard the news and offer up this remembrance as a public thanks for his inspiration and positive instigation in my life. We do not choose the profound figures in our walk, they simply rise up to greet us in the moments we are ready to see them, and I’m grateful that his “Hand Jive” beckoned me from my couch that long ago evening whose reverberations echo still today.