Midnight at the Barrelhouse
The Johnny Otis Story
The first biography of music legend and civil rights activist Johnny Otis
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.” This chronicle of a life rich in both incident and inspiration also explores the complicated nature of race relations in twentieth-century America.
Johnny Otis—he’s the coolest! A true pioneer of the music I love.
Considered by many to be the godfather of R&B, Johnny Otis—musician, producer, artist, entrepreneur, pastor, disc jockey, writer, and tireless fighter for racial equality—has had a remarkable life by any measure. In this first biography of 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.”
Born to Greek immigrant parents in Vallejo, California, in 1921, Otis grew up in an integrated neighborhood and identified deeply with black music and culture from an early age. He moved to Los Angeles as a young man and submerged himself in the city’s vibrant African American cultural life, centered on Central Avenue and its thriving music scene. Otis began his six-decade career in music playing drums in territory swing bands in the 1930s. He went on to lead his own band in the 1940s and open the Barrelhouse nightclub in Watts. His R&B band had seventeen Top 40 hits between 1950 and 1969, including “Willie and the Hand Jive.” As a producer and A&R man, Otis discovered such legends as Etta James, Jackie Wilson, and Big Mama Thornton.
Otis also wrote a column for the Sentinel, one of L.A.’s leading black newspapers, became pastor of his own interracial church, hosted popular radio and television shows that introduced millions to music by African American artists, and was lauded as businessman of the year in a 1951 cover story in Negro Achievements magazine. Throughout his career Otis’s driving passion has been his fearless and unyielding opposition to racial injustice, whether protesting on the front lines, exposing racism and championing the accomplishments of black Americans, or promoting African American musicians.
Midnight at the Barrelhouse 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. Otis’s total commitment to black culture and transcendence of racial boundaries, Lipsitz shows, teach important lessons about identity, race, and power while encapsulating the contradictions of racism in American society.
Johnny Otis—he’s the coolest! A true pioneer of the music I love.
We are lucky to have Johnny Otis, as the world is short on smart, soulful, funny, gifted, walk-the-walk folk. Bless his heart.
Johnny Otis is one of the most important figures in the history of R&B and rock and roll. Through mentoring and showcasing so many brilliant stars in his legendary live revues and incredible bands; his contributions as writer, player, and producer of so many seminal recordings; and his decades of hosting his beloved West Coast radio show, his legacy as professor emeritus of R&B will remain forever intact.
Johnny’s career just dazzles the mind. From discovering Esther Phillips and Jackie Wilson, to being a drummer, singer, piano player, bandleader, hit-maker right down to sculpting and painting. He even lost a seat for the California state assembly. You can’t top that. Willie and the Hand Jive indeed.
Otis’s autobiography, Listen to the Lambs, is in print, but this first biography will be an exciting read for fans of R&B and early rock n’ roll as well as those studying race relations in the music industry.
Musician, producer, and songwriter Johnny Otis was born in the nondescript central-California city of Vallejo, but his life story is pure LA. . . . In Midnight at the Barrelhouse, George Lipsitz gives Otis his due. That this is the first biography of the man says volumes about the critical neglect of West Coast jazz in general and Otis in particular.
With passion but academic measuredness, Lipsitz portrays Otis as a complex person who saw himself as a small part of a much bigger picture.
An insightful new biography of the remarkable Vallejo, California-born, Berkeley-bred musician.
Long-overdue recognition and appreciation of one of the founders of rock music.
Clearly at home in academia, Lipsitz manages to keep history interesting with startling statistics and eyewitness accounts painting a convincing portrait of an American mired in systemic racism.
Lipsitz, a professor of black studies and sociology at the University of California, has written a rich, multifaceted portrait exploring one man’s life and the life of the music he fiercely embraced; a study of black American music in the postwar era and the wellspring of social history from which that music emerged.
His career, especially in the turmoil of the ‘50s and ‘60s, is the framework for Midnight at the Barrelhouse, George Lipsitz’s expansive, insightful biography one of modern music’s most important figures, a book that manages the difficult feat of being at once a social history of America’s evolution; a study of the ways music and culture transcend the rigidities of race and ethnicity; and a biography of one musician’s place in the national songbook and the nation’s evolution.
More than just the chronicle of a superb and influential musician, Midnight at the Barrelhouse is an exploration of some of the less extolled aspects of the struggle for civil rights in America.
A story that needs to be read and appreciated.
Lipsitz has written a detailed and thought-provoking social history, using the power and passion of one man as a pro-active barometer signaling far reaching change.
Record Collector Magazine
Lipsitz brings rich historical context and his own brand of sizzling prose to the life and times of one of the most holistic, driven, and connected musicians of the twentieth century.
Journal of American History
Introduction: There’s a Riot Goin’ On
1. Central Avenue Breakdown
2. Double Crossing Blues
3. Willie and the Hand Jive
4. Listen to the Lambs
5. All Night Long
6. Play Misty for Me
7. The Watts Breakaway
8. Midnight at the Barrelhouse
UMP blog - Why Johnny Otis's death hits so hard.
I knew something was wrong the second I answered the telephone and heard Tom Reed’s voice. Although it has been decades since Tom ruled the airwaves in Los Angeles as the city’s most popular disc jockey — as “The Master Blaster on KGFJ 1230AM — his voice has never lost its luster, it boldness, its compelling confidence. Every time we talk on the phone I feel energized and excited, like I am about to win a contest or hear a great record. But this time, Tom sounded different. He spoke slowly and with sadness. He told me that Johnny Otis had died.