Thursday, January 19, 2012
I was planning on contributing sweet FA to the blog this week, but then I was greeted with this news: the great Johnny Otis died in LA. This news will mean nothing to most people, and more's the pity for such a predicament. He did more for righteous music in the 20th century than just about anyone else who's walked this planet the past 100 years. And indeed, he nearly made the century: he was 90 years young. He lived a longer and richer life than most, so I see little need for mourning the guy's death as one taken from us too soon. You should just be glad he made the effort. I wrote about him in May last year right here, and you can read other details of his life right here in this LA Times obituary, so I'm not going to repeat his life story once more. What is sad is that his death, even to alleged fans of "rock music", will mean zip to most folks. When Elvis died, you really heard about it. I remember John Lennon songs being flogged ad nauseum for months on end after his death, and you can bet that the malarky to be made over Dylan's eventual passing will be the stuff of legend. And that's OK, because they deserve it. Just like Johnny Otis deserves it. But history is written by the victors, and Johnny's time in the public eye was starting to fade once rock & roll became big news in the mid '50s. He'd had his share of big hits, and would continue to have more in the next half-decade, even making a killer sleaze-soul classic w/ 1968's Snatch & the Poontangs LP. He was no mere 20-hit wonder.
From the '70s on, he hit the revival circuit and could still slay 'em. Meanwhile, he dabbled in cook books, radio, painting, the ministry, Democratic politics and writing. Dylan loved him. Zappa worshipped him. I'm but a neophyte to his genius, having only discovered him about 3 or 4 years ago, but his music, particularly his greasy R & B sides from the '40s & '50s - great slabs of upbeat party anthems and downbeat LA noire-blues - ranks amongst the best which have ever graced these ears. All his best material from the 1940s/'50s/'60s is ably documented by the Ace label from the UK. Sure, given much of its public-domain status, there are other continental types glutting the market w/ his wares, but nobody does it w/ such care, quality and precision as the Ace folks. Some old-time geezers say his music sounds best on 78/45 and scoff at such easily-begotten slabs of digital noise, and such a mentality speaks for itself. You wanna blow $500 for a few slabs of wax on ebay or just get the killers in a heartbeat in a handy, shiny selection? Good. Otis also owned and ran the Dig label in the '50s, and these collections rank among the best in his discography. Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Preston Love, Jimmy Nolen and Johnny himself: these comps are the bees' knees of downbeat/upbeat sleaze 'n' grease R & B. There's a new Otis CD out this very week, part 2 in Ace's Johnny Otis Story series (the first one, Midnight At The Barrelhouse, is the bomb), and I need it. Beat the herd and get on it. Johnny Otis was a man who needed no regrets. My only regret is that I didn't get onto him a whole lot earlier in life.