Saturday, January 21, 2012

Johnny Otis 1921 - 2012

We all have heroes. Some of us have lots of them. In my 70 years, I've had a boatload of heroes, but a few truly stand out... in a class by themselves... my "Super Heroes." Johnny Otis is one of those stand-outs.

He burst into my life on my eleventh birthday. My mother and father had gifted me that day with my very own radio for my bedroom. I'd had a rambunctious party that afternoon, and was feeling really tired, so had decided to go to bed early, and allow my new radio to lull me to sleep. After some dial twiddling, I found the local classical station - the station most often played in our house. Alas, they were playing Rimsky-Korsakov's "Sheherazade", one of my least favorite works in the entire classical repertoire. So I twiddled the dial further and came upon some music unlike any I'd ever heard before. A woman with a Theresa Brewer-like voice was singing about how badly her boyfriend was treating her. It definitely wasn't Theresa Brewer, though... this singer was gutsy and grinding, and her backup music was banging out a raunchy beat that made me want to get up out of the bed and dance, in spite of how tired I was. It sounded wonderful, and I loved it instantly. After a few minutes, a very up-tempo man's voice informed me I'd just heard Ruth Brown singing, "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean." The excitable man then launched us into another song that was just as strange and wonderful as Ms Brown's song had been. This incredible music continued for over an hour, until 9:00, when the man finally identified himself as Johnny Otis, and invited me to come back tomorrow night at 6:00, and we'd "do it all over again." I was so excited about what I'd heard, I could barely calm down enough to go to sleep. At school the next day, I asked around to see if anyone knew who Johnny Otis was. Most kids had never heard of him, but one boy looked at me disdainfully and said, "Oh, he's the guy that plays that 'colored' music." In my lilly-white environment, I'd had almost no exposure to "colored" people, or their music, so, of course... my fuse was lit.

Long story short... I started listening to The Johnny Otis Show every night. I quickly discovered after The J.O show was over, The Sleepy Stein Show came on, and Sleepy played jazz until midnight... but that's another story.

Over the years, I followed Johnny's shows, both live and on-air, and was delighted as his kind of music finally gained acceptance in the greater sphere of things. My professional life has always been as a classical musician, but I feel my musical personality has been well-balanced thanks to my appreciation of Rhythm and Blues and Jazz. Ultimately, I probably would have discovered both genres through other channels, but I've always given Johnny Otis credit for doing the deed. Johnny was instrumental in introducing a phenomenal number of musicians to the R & B scene, as well as being a singer, bandleader, composer and entrepreneur. He was truly a force to be reckoned with.

This is my favorite picture of Johnny... sitting in the broadcast booth, doing what he did best... spreading the good news of R & B.

With his band in the '50s...
The woman in the back in the red dress is Etta James... another legend lost to us this week.

One of my favorite CDs, with clips from broadcasts of his shows...

In later years... still going strong!!

While Johnny didn't "discover" B.B. King, my all-time favorite Blues Man, he did an excellent job of exposing the world to him... MUCH to my delight!!!

Many are unaware that Johnny was a very talented artist... his work is bold, colorful, very "Black", and, to me, reminiscent of the work of Diego Riviera. This book tells it all...

Thanks for everything, Johnny!

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