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Midnight at the Barrelhouse

Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story

George Lipsitz
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Midnight at the Barrelhouse
    Book Description:

    In this first biography of Johnny Otis, George Lipsitz tells the largely unknown story of a towering figure in the history of African American music and culture who was, by his own description, “black by persuasion.” It is a chronicle of a life rich in both incident and inspiration, as well as an exploration of the complicated nature of race relations in twentieth-century America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-7368-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction: THERE’S A RIOT GOIN’ ON
    (pp. vii-xxxii)

    As he drove home from work late in the afternoon on Friday the 13th in August 1965, Johnny Otis could see black smoke rising in the sky and orange flames flickering from the rooftops of distant buildings. Rioters in the Watts ghetto were looting stores, setting buildings on fire, and pelting police officers and firefighters with bricks, bottles, and stones. It started with a seemingly routine traffic stop on Wednesday night near the intersection of 116th and Avalon in Watts. Some pushing and shoving between white California Highway Patrol officers and a small group of spectators who had witnessed the...

    (pp. 1-28)

    The period in which Johnny Otis grew up in his Greek immigrant family, the 1920s, was one of the most anti-immigrant decades in U.S. history. In the wake of vigilante attacks on the businesses and homes of German Americans by “patriotic” citizens during World War I, a wave of nativist hysteria spread over the nation, terrorizing immigrants and their families. Throughout the country, local school boards banned foreign-language instruction in high schools. City officials removed foreign-language books from libraries. Some state legislatures tried to make it illegal to speak on the telephone in languages other than English. U.S. Attorney General...

    (pp. 29-53)

    The commercial success of “Harlem Nocturne” launched a new era for Johnny Otis. His band was selected to back up the tremendously popular vocal group the Ink Spots on their 1947 national tour. Legendary tap dancers Cholly Atkins and Honi Coles also appeared on the bill. Atkins especially appreciated the Otis band’s attentiveness to his particular needs as a dancer. In his auto-biography, Atkins remembered that the show was top-notch and that Johnny Otis was “an adorable person.”¹ The Ink Spots performed in old movie theaters, and it was a special treat for Otis to hear his band’s music resonate...

    (pp. 54-79)

    During the 1950s, Johnny Otis became one of the best-known personalities in popular music. Through recordings, live performances, and broadcasts on radio and television, he became Southern California’s most recognizable representative of Black music. That visibility gave him special responsibilities. At a time when Black communities across the country were mobilizing for freedom, racial issues took center stage in national life. Chaotic, contentious, and often violent struggles challenged the status quo with a vexing mixture of progress and retreat. The Supreme Court declared segregated schools to be unconstitutional, yet the men who murdered fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi went unpunished....

    (pp. 80-91)

    Almost as soon as the fires had been extinguished in Watts and South Los Angeles in August 1965, Johnny Otis started to write about the riots. He penned a long letter to a friend about the uprising less than a week after he drove down Central Avenue into the heart of the conflagration. During the weeks that followed, he collected oral testimonies from eyewitnesses to the insurrection and began to compose a series of short essays about the uprising and its importance. These writings grew into a book,Listen to the Lambs, published in 1968. It is an impassioned and...

    (pp. 92-115)

    Like other musicians during the 1950s, Johnny Otis often had to defend himself against charges that he was “polluting” the youth of America by performing and promoting sensual, provocative, and even “obscene” Black music, music that purportedly poisoned the minds and morals of young whites. Crusaders opposed to rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues music alleged that these genres promoted illicit sexual behavior. Executives at major record labels, radio and television programmers, and watchdogs of public morality in and out of government sought incessantly to censor lyrics and smooth the rough edges off rhythmically complex songs. When Mercury Records...

    (pp. 116-138)

    Johnny Otis’s music and radio broadcasting endeavors owed their origins to one magic moment in 1970. A representation of that day has been preserved in a scene near the end of Clint Eastwood’s 1971 motion picture,Play Misty for Me. The film’s protagonist (Dave Garver, played by Eastwood) enters the grounds of the Monterey Jazz Festival while the Johnny Otis Show is performing onstage. The camera pans in on Gene Connors (aka the Mighty Flea) displaying his trombone talents on the song “Preacher’s Blues.”¹ When the selection ends, we hear Johnny Otis’s voice (off-camera) asking for a round of applause...

    (pp. 139-158)

    Throughout his life, visual art played a special role in Johnny Otis’s world. The California School of Fine Arts offered him a scholarship when he was a teenager. Before he painted the portrait of Nat Turner that won a citywide Black History art contest in 1965, he had entertained fellow band members and friends with deftly drawn cartoons while working on the road as a traveling musician in the 1950s. After his sixtieth birthday he immersed himself in art, turning parts of his home and backyard into a studio for mixed-media assemblages and sculptures.

    “Art is an act of love,”...

    (pp. 159-184)

    One of the most important symbols in West African culture, which shapes so much of Johnny Otis’s aesthetic, political, and moral understandings of the world, is the crossroads. Crossroads are places where different paths come together, sites where strangers meet, and locations where choices have to be made. Crossroads can be confusing. The right path can look like the wrong path, and the wrong path can look like the right path. Crossroads can be dangerous. Collisions occur at crossroads. People lose their way at crossroads. Yet the great challenges of life often come in the form of decisions that have...

  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 185-186)
  13. Testimony: In Praise of Johnny Otis
    (pp. 187-194)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 195-214)
  15. Index
    (pp. 215-236)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 237-237)
  17. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)