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 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.