Musician, producer, and songwriter Johnny Otis was born in the nondescript central-California city of Vallejo, but his life story is pure LA. By that I don't mean he's a small-town boy who ended up in Hollywood and became a star, though that's certainly true. A multifaceted force in the music business for some sixty years, Otis started out in swing bands in the late 1930s and wound up shaping the popular music that came after, most notably R&B. Otis legitimized the ideal of a West Coast melting pot in that he was multicultural, professionally and personally, long before multicultural became a popular term.
The son of Greek immigrants (he was born John Veliotes), Otis was profoundly influenced by the rhythm and energy of black American music, so much so that he adopted black people and culture as his own. He did this seriously—not as a voyeur or thrillseeker (he called it being "black by persuasion")—and in ways that went far beyond music. Otis marched for civil rights, wrote a weekly column for a black newspaper, and tirelessly promoted black artists he felt were under-valued and exploited by white-owned record labels.
In Midnight at the Barrelhouse, George Lipsitz, a professor of black studies and sociology at UC Santa Barbara, gives Otis his due. That this is the first biography of the man, who was born in 1921, says volumes about the critical neglect of West Coast jazz in general and Otis in particular. With passion but academic measuredness, Lipsitz portrays Otis as a complex person who saw himself as a small part of a much bigger picture. The book opens with a distraught Otis driving through the ruins of Watts during the racial unrest of 1965; Watts and neighboring South Central Los Angeles were touchstones for Otis, the black part of town where he co-owned and performed at a club called the Barrelhouse. It was foolhardy for anybody white to drive into Watts on that fateful August afternoon when it erupted into flames, but Otis did, not because he thought he transcended whiteness but because this was his home and these were his people.
Otis comes off as warm and generous but also salty and impolitic, certainly in terms of the racial etiquette of his times. As a white bandleader and advocate for social justice, Otis experienced overt racial hostility right along with his musicians, both on the road and at home (black musicians called LA "Mississippi with palm trees"). But it wasn't all struggle. Otis was, after all, successful; his R&B band had one of the biggest hits of early rock 'n' roll with "Willie and the Hand Jive." Always on the lookout for talent, he jump-started the careers of Jackie Wilson, Etta James, and Big Mama Thornton.
Although Lipsitz's sociologist-speak bogs things down in spots, that doesn't dim his portrait of Otis as an artist of great imagination and even greater racial courage and conviction. If Otis had any doubts about the authenticity of his own life, they were put to rest during that nightmarish drive through Watts. Lipsitz writes that "amid the frightening sounds of windows breaking, objects striking automobiles and police car and fire engines wailing," a hefty black woman flagged Otis down and leaned into his car window. He expected the worst, but the woman only greeted him calmly—"as if they were in the middle of a picnic"—and asked him where his band was appearing next. That bizarre moment captures the essence of Otis's legacy: even in the most uncertain times, an expectation of the next big thing.