Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story
Erin Aubry Kaplan
Midnight at the Barrelhouse:
The Johnny Otis Story
by George Lipsitz
Univ Of Minnesota Press
$24.95 List Price
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