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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Steve Arloff, Nick Barnard, Pierre Giroux, Don Mather, Glyn Pursglove, George Stacy, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf



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JOHNNY OTIS

Midnight at the Barrelhouse

Ace CDCHD 1312

 

 


1. Johnny Otis Signature
2. Good Old Blues
3. Harlem Nocturne
4. Double Crossing Blues
5. Midnight in the Barrelhouse
6. The Turkey Hop Part 2
7. Boogie Guitar
8. Wedding Boogie
9. Oopy-Doo
10. Miss Mitchell
11. Rock Me Baby
12. Hound Dog
13. Robey's Bounce
14. Every Beat of My Heart
15. Cattle Train
16. So Fine
17. Like Shortnin' Bread
18. Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!
19. The Midnite Creeper Part 1
20. The Midnite Creeper Part 2
21. Tough Enough
22. Shake It Lucy Baby
23. Bye Bye Baby
24. Ma (He's Making Eyes at Me)
25. Willie and the Hand Jive

 

You may think of Johnny Otis as an exponent of rhythm and blues but in fact his recordings covered a wide range of styles - just as his life encompassed a large variety of roles (the Ace Records label lists them as "author, father, painter, radio DJ, TV host, sculptor, political activist, priest, farmer and much more besides"). This CD celebrates Johnny's 90th birthday this year as well as illustrating the breadth of his music, from the early years of his career to his first Capitol hits.

The tracks are not arranged in chronological order, which is a pity, but they provide good evidence of Johnny's contribution to rhythm and blues from as early as 1945. Rhythm and blues might be called a form of jazz which emphasised the rhythm and the blues elements. It also had roots in country swing, jump jive and gospel music, and it formed the foundation of rock 'n' roll. The earliest track on the CD is Harlem Nocturne, which is essentially a jazz piece. Johnny Otis (real name John Alexander Veliotes) was a drummer who had played in Harlan Leonard's jazz band before forming his own big band in 1945.

But the era of big bands was on the downturn and Otis's ensemble soon became a smaller group. The title-track of this album shows how the band developed into an R and B ensemble, with Pete "Guitar" Lewis strongly featured in a tune which foreshadowed the guitar basis of rock 'n' roll. Yet the honking saxophone in Good Old Blues is similar to the sound that excited audiences in Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, and Little Esther's vocals on Double Crossing Blues were heavily influenced by Dinah Washington.

Subsequent tracks reveal a remarkable variety of styles. When Johnny Otis injured two of his fingers, he switched to the vibraphone, which adds a jazzy flavour to many tunes. Wedding Boogie is a comic song which suggests a comparison with Louis Jordan, while Oopy-Doo (with vocal by Johnny Otis himself, as well as a vibes solo) is the sort of song based on a nonsensical phrase which often appeared in later performances by rock 'n' rollers. Miss Mitchell is an instrumental which introduces an electric organ as well as an adept vibes solo (with hints of a Lionel Hampton boogie).

Big Mama Thornton sings Hound Dog three years before it was a hit for Elvis Presley. Otis wrote Every Beat of My Heart, where the cooing vocals from the Royals anticipate the sweet vocal harmony of many subsequent singing groups. The Midnite Creeper is a boogie-woogie number with extrovert tenor sax and bluesy piano. And so we come to Ma (He's Making Eyes at Me) which was a British hit for Johnny Otis in 1957, followed by Bye Bye Baby in 1958. The former song was actually written in 1921! The final Willie and the Hand Jive uses the "Bo Diddley" rhythm to create an appetising track.

This CD is the first of two volumes surveying Johnny Otis's music. Jazz purists may feel that this album is not for them but it helps us understand one of the strands which grew out of jazz, eventually becoming the predominant sound in popular music for many years.

Tony Augarde

www.augardebooks.co.uk



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