Johnny Otis Volume 2
On With The Show: The Johnny Otis Story Volume 2 1957-1974
By Grant Britt
Although Johnny Otis is remembered primarily for his ’58 hit “Willie and the Hand Jive,” he was one of the most prolific and exciting performers in r&b. The traveling circus that was the Johnny Otis show was an old fashioned rock and roll road show, a review featuring an array of stellar vocalists and instrumentalists, presenting a wide variety of artists, styles and genres in one performance. Etta James, Jackie Wilson and Big Mama Thornton are all Otis discoveries he exposed and nurtured early in their careers. As usual, Ace Records has done a meticulous job, assembling material from throughout his career that demonstrates Otis’ versatility.
This is the second volume of the Otis retrospective, covering the period just after the release of “Hand Jive” through the mid-seventies. Even though his last chart recognition was with guitarist son Shuggie, who began recording with his dad when he was 12, on ‘82’s The Johnny Otis Show, Otis continued to record and perform into 2000, passing away at age 90 in January.
All the cuts on this compilation were issued after “Hand Jive,” but there’s still plenty of gold in the grooves. Check out Shuggie’s funky wah-wah on the ’74 single “Jaws” that sounds like it could have fallen out of a JB’s session.
Otis’ “Bye Bye Baby” has the feel of an after hours club at dawn, with the band slumped in their chairs, banging out one last tune before the sun comes up.
1960’s “Mumblin’ Mosie” is a novelty record in the great Leiber and Stoller tradition along the lines of the Coasters’ “Little Egypt,” backed by Bo Diddley’s signature shave and a haircut backbeat. Politically incorrect by today’s standards, it’s the story of Otis’ stuttering girlfriend, who takes so long to sputter out an answer to his marriage proposal he skips out on her before she can respond.
But Ace makes sure that Otis is not perceived as just a novelty artist. “Cold Turkey,” a big band bounce, harks back to Otis’ big band period when he had a hit in ’45 with “Harlem Nocturne.”
‘69s “Watts Breakaway” sounds like something out of Sam and Dave’s Muscle Shoals sessions, funky enough for Soul Train. “I got the Walkin’ Blues,” from ‘70s Cuttin’ Up, features Shuggie cutting up Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” into a rocking 12 bar stomp featuring a duet with Johnny and Sugarcane Harris, who Frank Zappa featured prominently on electric violin on Hot Rats , Weasels Ripped My flesh, and Burnt Weenie Sandwich.
Otis Volume 2 is a great tribute to Otis. As thorough as it is, it only scratches the surface of the scope of the man’s contributions to r&b, jazz, big band and blues. Fortunately, Ace can help with their extensive compilations of Otis’ music available in their catalog. If you’re a newcomer to his music, it’s a great introduction to one of the most prolific and versatile performers of all times. And if you’re already a fan, it’ll whet your appetite for more. Listen up, then get ready to order.
Johnnie and Shuggie