Johnny Otis, 1921-2012

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Capture.JPGI’m not big on celebrity farewells, but Johnny Otis was one of the coolest guys in the world.

He’s best knows for his Big Hit, “Willie and the Hand Jive”, a cheerful rip-off of Bo Diddly that he milked for years (in the great tradition of Bo Diddly himself). But his impact as a producer and A&R guy on R&B and the west coast music scene was immeasurable, and of an incredible span - he produced Big Mama Thornton’s original recording of “Hound Dog”, gave Jackie Wilson his first big break in recording, discovered Little Esther , and acted as friend and mentor to both and Etta James AND Frank Zappa (who stole Otis’ trademark beard).

As a bandleader, singer, songwriter, and musician he recorded dozens of albums, some weak, some great, running the gamut from R&B-tinged pop to rock to blues. You never knew quite what you’d be getting: the good stuff was very, very good, but too many of his recordings were laboured reworkings of “Hand Jive”, a tired blues journeyman dusting off the licks for one more album.

But you can hear him at his best on “Cold Shot”, an album he recorded in 1969 with his son Shuggie on lead. He never did it this well before or after - it was the toughest, smokiest set he ever recorded. Shuggie is stinging, the band is tight and hot, the songs are great (check out the hilariously obscene Signifyin’ Monkey, and remember this was the year they refused to air the word “Christ” in a Beatles’ single).

Not a bad career for a white boy.

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This page contains a single entry by Balbulican published on January 19, 2012 12:15 PM.

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