Johnny Otis, Music Man -- And So Much More

Johnny Otis | Photo via MFS Photo 4/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Johnny Otis has died at the age of 90. In his life he wore many hats, often all at the same time: musician, bandleader, promoter, R & B innovator, talent scout, deejay, activist, journalist. I didn't know him personally or as a part of my growing up. He was not, obviously, of my generation. But his influence on my life in L.A. and on the city that I grew up loving and questioning in equal measure is incalculable.

Otis was also a race man -- somebody committed to the cause of black equality full-time primarily because they or their family experienced inequality firsthand. In other words, race men (and women) are black by definition. Johnny Otis was white. But he was unquestionably a race man, more so than many black people of his time. This was a conscious choice -- he said he frankly preferred being black to being anything else -- but it was also something more than that. A Greek-American, Otis grew up in a black neighborhood in Northern California and saw himself as a product of the culture, not simply a beneficiary of it. He lived blackness, meaning that while he celebrated the culture and music, he also included himself in the ongoing struggle for black access and equality. In his mind, both were part of a single experience. When Otis used the words "we" and "us" to refer to black communities, it was with a total lack of irony or any sense of white entitlement, an attitude that's very hard to imagine in today's allegedly post-racial landscape.

It was the music business, which exploited blacks and appropriated their culture almost as a matter of course (some things never change), that really made a race man out of him. In the early '50s, as jazz waned and R & B starting taking its place as America's primary pop music, Otis saw that exploitation up close and fought against it every way he could. As a white man in the biz he had an advantage, but it was quickly offset by his obvious sympathies for his black colleagues who he often saw not simply as equals, but as superiors. Let's just say that didn't play too well in Peoria.

I'd heard snippets about Otis from my father and other people for whom he'd been a touchstone, mostly as a local deejay-cum-music historian on KPFK. But it wasn't until last year that I read the whole story in George Lipsitz's excellent biography of Otis, "Midnight at the Barrelhouse." The book starts out with a scene that has nothing, and yet everything to do with black music: Johnny Otis riding his car down to Watts in August 1965 during the infamous conflagration known as the Watts Riots. Lipsitz describes Otis as genuinely heartbroken at what was happening to his community; he was warned about the danger of a white man going to that part of town at that moment, but of course he brushed it off. I also learned that Otis was the first and only white man to pen a regular column for the L.A. Sentinel, the biggest and most historical black newspaper in town. Reading the book, I was continually astonished at the depth of Otis' commitment to every aspect of an identity that most of us--yes, I mean black folk--still have trouble defining and validating on a daily basis. The most dedicated race people among us, from musicians on up, are always tempted to retire, or to at least tone it down.

Not Otis. He believed in what Martin Luther King Jr. once said, that the arc of the universe is long--might as well enjoy the ride. Speaking of King, Otis certainly picked an appropriate week to go. There may never be any statues erected in his honor, but his legacy towers over this town and over the troubled but still-inspiring history of American popular music. The struggle continues.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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