An idea that’s gained currency among sociologists and cultural anthropologists in recent decades (and one hotly contested outside academic circles) is that race is primarily a cultural construct, as opposed to a biological absolute. That thinking’s appeared from time to time in unlikely circumstances: By way of making a compliment, the black gospel legend Ethel Waters is said to have once referred to Harold Arlen, the Jewish co-composer of classics “Stormy Weather” and “Over the Rainbow”, as “the Negro-est white man I ever met”.
For generations, the intersection of race matters and popular American culture has been a busy one; anyone navigating that intersection has been as likely to encounter a collision as an opportunity for merging traffic.
Johnny Otis has lived most of his life at that crowded thoroughfare. Considered by many to be the father of modern R&B music, Otis has been songwriter and impresario, author and nightclub owner, producer and band leader, journalist and broadcaster, artist and mentor, negotiating the free-fire zone of racial and cultural politics for more than 60 years with an unwavering integrity and sense of purpose as rare as it was revolutionary.
His career, especially in the turmoil of the ‘50s and ‘60s, is the framework for Midnight at the Barrelhouse, George Lipsitz’s expansive, insightful biography of one of modern music’s most important figures, a book that manages the difficult feat of being at once a social history of America’s evolution; a study of the ways music and culture transcend the rigidities of race and ethnicity; and a biography of one musician’s place in the national songbook and the nation’s evolution.
Early in his life, John Alexander Veliotes had a well-cultivated sense of right and wrong. Born to Greek immigrant parents in Vallejo, California, in 1921, Veliotes grew up in Berkeley in a racially mixed neighborhood and came to embrace black culture body and soul. Greeks and black Americans had a kind of accidental solidarity; in the Jim Crow South and elsewhere, both groups were the targets of the Ku Klux Klan in the years after World War I.
Lipsitz, using some of the numerous sources that form an exhaustive bibliography, quotes Otis’ own recollections with ethnic bias:
“I was around 13 when the ugly head of racism really reared up… I was told very diplomatically at school by a counselor 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 fulfilling for me.”
The music that would form the basis of his career infected him early:
Johnny loved the Greek music that resounded in the rooms inside his house, but he found himself drawn more to the blues music that he heard in his neighborhood. His first brush with the blues came courtesy of Sandy Moore, a Black man who worked as a Pullman porter and lived across the street. Moore often came home from his railroad trips well-stocked with blues recordings that he had purchased in the South.
It was to his advantage that he grew up in northern California, at that time a hotbed of social interaction that would come to fruition three decades later:
The culture of unity was especially strong in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1930s, when Johnny entered his teenage years. The San Francisco General Strike and the West Coast Waterfront strikes of 1934 enacted the cross-cultural unity that much of the poetry, art, music, and fiction of the times merely envisioned.
Otis started his musical career as a drummer at the age of 17, playing in Count Otis Matthews’ group, the West Oakland House Stompers, and eventually performed with other groups. In 1943 Otis moved to Los Angeles at the urging of Nat King Cole and Jimmy Witherspoon, and signed on with Harlan Leonard’s Kansas City Rockets. The group held forth at the Club Alabama, a venue on Central Avenue—what was then the nexus of the black music scene in World War II-era L.A.
He went on to form his own band and going on to master the piano and the vibraphone. In 1947, Otis and other friends and associates opened the Barrelhouse, a Watts nightclub that became the first club in the country to showcase R&B music on a regular basis.
In the years to come, Otis essentially transformed himself into a renaissance man of black musical culture. He would discover stars such as Hank Ballard, Etta James, Esther Phillips, and Jackie Wilson, and would produce some of Little Richard’s early work. Many Americans will recognize one of Otis’ more celebrated songs—“Willie and the Hand Jive”, a track recorded by Otis in April 1958 and covered by everyone from Eric Clapton to the Grateful Dead—without knowing anything about its creator.
The ‘40s and ‘50s were challenging times to be black in this country; while mainstream America shunned blacks outright, struggling with acceptance of the African American ingredients of our culture, Otis had no such reservations. He assumed the spiritual and cultural aspects of African American identity, choosing to identify not just with black Americans but himself as a black American at a time when such connections were fraught with danger and violence.
He’s described himself as “black by persuasion”, a phrase that in its voluntary adoption of a race, its traditions and memes, looks at race not as accidental genetic inheritance but as deliberate cultural choice.
That awareness, that embrace of cultures outside the one he was born into is basic to understanding Otis not just as a musician, but also as a moral force. What’s inescapable in Lipsitz’s book is Otis’ moral and physical courage, and the ways he both assumed the liberating cultural tropes of the black experience, and its more dangerous, or at least problematic, aspects.
At the age of 20, Otis married Phyllis Walker, a black-Filipino girl he’d known from childhood, wedding her despite the deep and enduring objections of his own mother.
He once had to be restrained from violence when an LA clubgoer hurled racial epithets at a fellow band member. In 1960, he picketed in support of sit-in protesters opposing segregation at lunch counters. That same year, somebody burned a cross on his lawn in the dead of night. He fielded threats phoned into his home.
Otis went on to write columns for the Los Angeles Sentinel, a community newspaper that focused on the lives and welfare of black Angelenos. In April 1962, Lipsitz reports, Otis wrote a column condemning LA’s housing discrimination, “noting that Los Angeles was three times as segregated as Atlanta and Houston, five times more segregated than New Orleans, and ten times more segregated than Memphis”.
Not long after Pete Seeger galvanized American progressives with folk music, and years before Bob Dylan brought social issues to the forefront of rock music, Johnny Otis was, to borrow a civil-rights era phrase, a “drum major for justice” in a cultural context. The reader encounters surprises that add to what we know, or think we know, about various top-tier stars.
Lipsitz writes of how one of Johnny’s sons, Shuggie—a prominent rock and blues guitarist in his own right, but one who embraced celebrity with reluctance, despite his virtuosity—was invited to join the Rolling Stones after Mick Taylor’s departure. He recounts Otis’ pride when Shuggie was approached by the Stones, and the greater pride he felt when Shuggie—an apple that fell not far from the tree of his father—rebuffed “the greatest rock n’ roll band in the world” in order to chart his own musical path.
Johnny Otis had a role in creating the literal names of a number of black singers, well known and undersung:
As a band leader, producer, promoter, and mentor, Otis displayed an exceptional talent for giving people new and memorable names. ... he turned Jamesetta Rogers into Etta James, Leard Bell into [drummer] Kansas City Bell, Willie Mae Thornton into Big Mama Thornton, and Umpeylia Balinton into [R&B singer] Sugar Pie DeSanto ... these new names announced a break in time, the arrival of a new generational cohort with its own style and self-confidence.
Any number of other musicians black and white—from Howlin’ Wolf to Muddy Waters, from Little Milton to Bo Diddley, from BB King to Bob Dylan, from Lou Reed to Bono—would do the same thing on their own, using new identifiers to mark their own separation between past and future.
Lipsitz, a professor of black studies and sociology at the University of California, has written a rich, multifaceted portrait exploring one man’s life and the life of the music he fiercely embraced; a study of black American music in the postwar era and the wellspring of social history from which that music emerged.
In the last chapter of this book, which takes its title from a song Otis wrote in the 40s, Lipsitz masterfully unifies his thesis in breaking down the role of “the crossroads” (a staple of West African cultural tradition) as both a symbol of Otis’ choices of life and career and, as a more universal metaphor, that pivot point where decisions are made or abandoned, where futures are secured or squandered:
One of the most important symbols of West African culture ... is the crossroads. Crossroads are places where different paths come together, sites where strangers meet, and locations where choices have to be made ...
Making the right decisions at the crossroads, however, is not a simple matter. In the cultures of the African diaspora, a trickster stands at the crossroads, ready to challenge those who come along. This trickster is not God or the devil, but rather an embodied contradiction… The trickster presents people with challenges, riddles, problems, insults, jokes, diversions, and evasions, yet his mischief has a positive purpose… the trickster at the crossroads demands action. He compels people to do work in the world that makes a difference.
By any measure, Johnny Otis, 88 years young, has made a difference. This defining biography, by turns earthy and magisterial, scholarly and passionate, has done the same.