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Midnight at the Barrelhouse

The Johnny Otis Story

George Lipsitz

Publication Year: 2010

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.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-7

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Introduction: There’s a Riot Goin’ On

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pp. vii-xxxi

As he drove home from work late in the afternoon on Friday the 13th in August 1965, Johnny Otis could see black smoke rising in the sky and orange flames flickering from the rooftops of distant buildings. Rioters in the Watts ghetto were looting stores, setting buildings on fire, and pelting police officers and firefighters...

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1. Central Avenue Breakdown

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pp. 1-28

The period in which Johnny Otis grew up in his Greek immigrant family, the 1920s, was one of the most anti-immigrant decades in U.S. history. In the wake of vigilante attacks on the businesses and homes of German Americans by “patriotic” citizens during World War I, a wave of nativist hysteria spread over the nation...

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2. Double Crossing Blues

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pp. 29-53

The commercial success of “Harlem Nocturne” launched a new era for Johnny Otis. His band was selected to back up the tremendously popular vocal group the Ink Spots on their 1947 national tour. Legendary tap dancers Cholly Atkins and Honi Coles also appeared on the bill. Atkins especially appreciated the...

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3. Willie and the Hand Jive

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pp. 54-79

During the 1950s, Johnny Otis became one of the best - known personalities in popular music. Through recordings, live performances, and broadcasts on radio and television, he became Southern California’s most recognizable representative of Black music. That visibility gave him special responsibilities. At a time...

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4. Listen to the Lambs

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pp. 80-91

Almost as soon as the fires had been extinguished in Watts and South Los Angeles in August 1965, Johnny Otis started to write about the riots. He penned a long letter to a friend about the uprising less than a week after he drove down Central Avenue into the heart of the conflagration. During the weeks that followed...

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5. All Night Long

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pp. 92-115

Like other musicians during the 1950s, Johnny Otis often had to defend himself against charges that he was “polluting” the youth of America by performing and promoting sensual, provocative, and even “obscene” Black music, music that purportedly poisoned the minds and morals of young whites. Crusaders opposed...

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6. Play Misty for Me

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pp. 116-138

Johnny Otis’s music and radio broadcasting endeavors owed their origins to one magic moment in 1970. A representation of that day has been preserved in a scene near the end of Clint Eastwood’s 1971 motion picture, Play Misty for Me. The film’s protagonist (Dave Garver, played by Eastwood) enters the grounds...

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7. The Watts Breakaway

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pp. 139-158

Throughout his life, visual art played a special role in Johnny Otis’s world. The California School of Fine Arts offered him a scholarship when he was a teenager. Before he painted the portrait of Nat Turner that won a citywide Black History art contest in 1965, he had entertained fellow band members and friends with...

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8. Midnight at the Barrelhouse

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pp. 159-184

One of the most important symbols in West African culture, which shapes so much of Johnny Otis’s aesthetic, political, and moral understandings of the world, is the crossroads. Crossroads are places where different paths come together, sites where strangers meet, and locations where choices have to be made. Crossroads...

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pp. 185-186

I am grateful to Johnny’s business manager, Terry Gould, for the countless hours he devoted to helping this book come into existence, and to Nick Veliotes, Brad Pierce, Brooke Pierce, Carlos Zialcita, Hal Kronick, Tom Reed, Kim Hester-Williams, and Barbara Morrison for sharing their...

Testimony: In Praise of Johnny Otis

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pp. 187-194


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pp. 195-213


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pp. 215-235

About the Author

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pp. 237-270


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pp. 238-253

E-ISBN-13: 9780816673681
E-ISBN-10: 0816673683
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816666782

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2010