The Johnny Otis Show: “Watts Breakaway” (Cuttin’ Up, 1970)

I didn’t hear about it at the time, but nearly a year, ago Johnny Otis passed away at age 90. He wasn’t a marquee name, so his death wasn’t widely reported, but he had a strangely huge influence for a musician so relatively little-known.

Born Iaonnis Alexandres Veliotes in 1921, he was the son of an immigrant grocery store owner. The store was located in a mostly black neighborhood of Berkley, California, and early in his life, Otis found himself identifying far more with the culture of his black neighbors than with mainstream America. He played drums in swing orchestras, crossing paths with Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young, and founded his own band as World War II came to a close—his version of “Harlem Nocturne” was among the most successful and best versions of the standard ever recorded. 

That band launched the career of Wynonie Harris of “Good Rockin’ Tonight” fame, and Otis had a hand in the rise of several other r&b stars, including Etta James, Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, Johnny Ace, and Esther Phillips. His own singles topped the US r&b chart four times—1958’s “Willie & the Hand Jive” is the most enduring of these—but he was never content with just leading a band and producing. 

He operated a handful of music venues during his life, the last of which was a hybrid grocery store/blues club, which I imagine would have made his father proud. He played sessions and wrote songs—he’s the drummer on Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog” and wrote “Every Beat of My Heart,” which was a huge hit for Gladys & Knights & the Pips in 1961. 

He dabbled in politics but never won elected office, though his brother Nicholas served as ambassador to first Jordan (under Carter) and later Egypt (under Reagan). He did A&R for King Records, and was a well-loved disc jockey during two different times of his life. He also pastored his own church for a while, an odd vocation for a guy who once recorded an album of pornographic songs under the name Snatch & the Poontangs.

He made that record the same year he recorded “Watts Breakaway” with his band the Johnny Otis Show. This song is infectiously funky, and even features a great, self-effacing exchange in which Otis asks vocalist Delmar Evans why he can’t do his own dance as well as the singer. 

Oh yes, and he was also the father of the great guitarist Shuggie Otis. Talk about a life. This guy lived it like it was going out of style. A full seventy years of doing what you love is something anyone could aspire to. 

Johnny Otis: “Harlem Nocturne” (Excelsior 45, 1945)

Johnny Otis was born John Alexander Veliotes in 1921. The son of Greek immigrants, he grew up in a mostly black neighborhood in Vallejo, California, an upbringing that mapped out much of the rest of his life for him. At age 20, he learned the drums after seeing Count Basie’s Orchestra, and for the next couple decades was a tireless promoter of black music, playing in bands, organizing early rock ‘n’ roll shows, leading his own big band and r&b combos, producing records, doing A&R for King Records and DJing at LA’s KFOX.

After forming his first big band in 1945, he cut this spooky, ragged version of Earle Hagen & Dick Rogers’ 1939 tune “Harlem Nocturne.” It was his first hit and set up his whole varied career, which in addition to all his musical activities also includes acting as deputy chief of staff for California congressman Mervin Dymally (his brother Nicholas has been ambassador to Jordan and Egypt), selling organic fruit juice, writing books, painting and scultping.I’ve had a hard time finding a lot of information, but I think Bill Doggett had a pretty big hand in this track.

"Harlem Nocturne" is a killer tune. WFMU’s Beware the Blog posted 42 versions of it after Hagen’s death in 2008, and they show just hard it is to screw this song up. The down-and-out introductory melody is lyrical—it’s the part that makes me think of asphalt soaked with nighttime rain, blinking marquee lights and men in coats and wide-brimmed hats shuffling from one joint to the next. If the opening verse is a smoky drag, the contrasting section is a promenade, going instantly upscale with the key change and shift in rhythm.

It gets me thinking about all the things Harlem has been through its history. Hagen wrote the song as a tribute to Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges (Ellington later recorded at least one version of his own, though I don’t think Hodge played on it), who of course were major exponents of the Harlem Renaissance, particularly during their time at the Cotton Club. I think Hagen was attempting to capture some of the spirit of Harlem in his song, much the way Duke’s orchestra peppered its recordings and performances with horn arrangements that recalled the sounds of city life. Working with only about a three-minute timeframe, he seized on a sort of duality: the city as rough, lonely and decadent, and on the other hand vibrant, creative, stylish.

The result is a tune with depth that feels like it understands the place it’s written about. This may be why it’s been recorded more than 500 times.

I’m planning to spend the whole week exploring Harlem through music—Harlem as an idea, as a place, and as a symbol.

Here’s Johnny Otis:

Johnny Otis

Hidden Track:

Johnny Otis is the father of Shuggie Otis, who played with his father on several albums in the late 60s and early 70s before making a few records of his own.