Johnny Otis The Johnny Otis Rhythm & Blues Caravan: The Complete Savoy Recordings (Savoy Jazz)
Reviewed by Jim Caligiuri, Fri., May 19, 2000
The Johnny Otis Rhythm & Blues Caravan: The Complete Savoy Recordings (Savoy Jazz)Although generally best known to the masses for his 1958 hit with the Bo Diddley beat, "Willie and the Hand Jive," Johnny Otis has had a remarkable career. For more than 50 years, Otis has been a drummer, vibraphonist, bandleader, record producer, talent scout, label owner, nightclub impresario, disc jockey, TV variety-show host, author, rock & roll star, painter, and entrepreneur in the health-food business. Born in Northern California in 1921 to Greek-American parents (his real name is John Veliotes), Otis felt more comfortable with the African-American culture that surrounded him in his formative years and adopted it as his own. The Complete Savoy Recordings is a 3-CD compilation that stylishly presents his beginnings as a bandleader and talent scout. As amply displayed here, Otis deserves his place in the upper tier of rhythm & blues pioneers. Through his work with and discoveries of such renowned talent as Jimmy Rushing, Little Esther Philips, the Robins (some of whom went on to form the Coasters), Mel Walker, Marilyn Scott, Linda Hopkins, Bill Doggett, and Jay McNeely, Otis has had a profound influence on American music. Following his 1945 debut, a big-band jazz arrangement of the moody "Harlem Nocturne" which sold fairly well, the hits came in droves. Moving closer to the R&B sound that was flourishing in Los Angeles, his home at the time, he continued with "Double Crossing Blues," "Mistrustin' Blues," and "Cupid's Boogie." All hit No. 1 during the next 12 months. In all, Otis scored almost a dozen Top 10 R&B smashes that year alone. "Gee Baby," "Mambo Boogie," and "All Nite Long" scored big in 1951, and "Sunset to Dawn" capped a remarkable run in 1952. With 78 tracks, including the songs and artists mentioned as well as eight previously unissued cuts and a few surprises (the "Hunter Hancock Theme" recorded for the popular L.A. DJ is a hoot), this is a handsome and lovingly assembled box. A terrific snapshot of a time when music was smooth, yet full of energy, it's one that lovers of jazz and classic R&B will surely want to seek out.