Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Midnight at the BarrelhouseThe Johnny Otis Story$

George Lipsitz

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780816666782

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816666782.001.0001

Show Summary Details

The Watts Breakaway

The Watts Breakaway

(p.139) Seven The Watts Breakaway
Midnight at the Barrelhouse

George Lipsitz

University of Minnesota Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on Johnny Otis’ visual art endeavors; his drawing, painting, and sculpture emerged from his love of and immersion in the spirit of the Black community. Otis perceived strong affinities between visual art and music. His artwork derived from the everyday life of the Black community; he followed the lead of local black and white artists such as Noah Purifoy and Judson Powell who were engaged in the same mixed-media assemblage form of art. One musician that Otis influenced was Margie Evans, who became a prominent artist-educator dedicated to preserving knowledge about the blues. The latter part of the chapter details Otis’ endeavors after his retirement, notably the establishment of the Johnny Otis Center for the Arts, a project intended to address the needs of children in Sonoma County.

Keywords:   Johnny Otis, Noah Purifoy, Judson Powell, mixed-media assemblage, Margie Evans, blues, Johnny Otis Center for the Arts

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 deftly drawn cartoons while working on the road as a traveling musician in the 1950s. After his sixtieth birthday he immersed himself in art, turning parts of his home and backyard into a studio for mixed-media assemblages and sculptures.

“Art is an act of love,” Otis maintains, and like so many things in his life, his engagement with drawing, painting, and sculpture emerged from his love of and immersion in the vitality of the Black community.1 He started drawing seriously on bus rides as his band made its way from job to job in the early 1950s. This reconnection with visual art started when Little Esther pestered him to make pictures of the sites that caught her eye as they moved along through the countryside. He began making sketches of cows, horses, and barns to keep her entertained. On one trip, Esther got into an argument with Little Arthur Matthews, a member of the band who also drove the group’s tour bus. Her older antagonist got the better of the exchange, and a frustrated Esther stalked to the back of the bus indignantly. Seething with anger, Phillips took the empty seat next to Johnny. She asked him to draw a picture of Little Arthur that would make him look really ugly. When Johnny demurred, Esther picked up a pencil and started to do it herself. She filled the center of the page with a big box decorated with windows and (p.140) wheels to represent the band bus with the words “The Johnny Otis Show” across it. She placed a grotesque image of Little Arthur behind the steering wheel in the driver’s seat, with the words “evil little ugly motherf––” underneath. The figure behind the wheel did not actually look anything like Arthur Matthews, but the drawing and its caption struck Johnny as very funny. After persuading Esther to change the caption to the less obscene but still insulting “L’il Booger,” Johnny showed the drawing to the other members of the band, who found it riotously amusing. Even Little Arthur found himself laughing at the over-the-top caricature of himself.

Almost immediately, members of the band came up with more ideas for cartoons. They requested images to settle private scores, reenact funny conversations, and record memorable events from their tours. Little Esther’s inspiration ebbed, however, once she had vented her feelings about Arthur Matthews. The group elected Johnny to be the band’s official cartoonist. He started frequenting art supply shops to obtain drawing pencils and sketch pads. The beautiful colors of oil paints caught his eye, leading him to purchase a canvas and try his hand at painting. Years later, Otis’s discovery of the similarities between the paintings of Pablo Picasso and traditional African wood sculptures struck him as extremely significant.2 He began to create in that style. Conversations with friends, especially Los Angeles–based African American artists Charles Dickson and John Outterbridge, educated Otis about the possibilities of sculpture in plaster of paris and Ultracal 30. When he moved from the big house on Harvard Boulevard to the suburban city of Altadena, he became a neighbor to Charles White, John Outter-bridge, Noah Purifoy, Curtis Tann, and many other Black artists who made their homes along the tree-lined streets of the suburb.3

Otis perceived strong affinities between visual art and music. In many ways, his drawing, painting, and sculpting are more extensions of his musicianship than distinctly different endeavors. “I’m not a visual artist,” he insists, “but I consider myself very lucky to have other ways to express and interpret what I see in the world.”4 The color wheel in painting reminded him of the basic triad in music. In painting, the primary colors of red, blue, and yellow form the base from which secondary tints can be created. In music, a major chord consists of the tonic, a third, and a fifth. Just as variations on the triad produce minor, augmented, and diminished chords, different mixes of primary colors produce subtler and more complex shadings. Moreover, communication by both sight and sound is made possible by the movement of waves, light waves in painting and sound waves in music.5

(p.141) Like his music, Otis’s artwork draws upon the everyday life of the Black community for its content. Many of his sculptures consist of found objects and rubbish. Tools once used to enhance beauty, such as discarded lipstick tubes, plastic curlers, and mirrors, become revived for a different kind of beauty as raw materials in the installations he creates. Otis favors remnants of containers like broken glass, metal cans, and bottle tops to serve as vessels of a different sort in his works of sculpture, evoking the West African artistic emphasis on using containers as metaphors. Tiny chairs that proved to be too small and uncomfortable for use by the students at Landmark Community Church’s Sunday school became the basis for his Chair series, made up of surrealistic sculptures that evoke the African ideal of a chair as a symbol of power.6 His sculpture Mom and Pop Store recreates a neighborhood candy store he remembers from his childhood. In that work, a clock advertising 7-Up soda is set at 3:20, the time when classes ended at his elementary school.7 In creating mixed-media assemblages, Otis followed the lead of local Black and white artists who found beauty in the discarded ephemera of consumer society in Southern California. Noah Purifoy and Judson Powell made artworks out of nearly three tons of charred wood and fire-molded debris left behind from the 1965 Watts Riots.8 Critics hailed mixed-media assemblage as the key art form for many artists in the area.9

The paintings in Otis’s Rhythm and Blues series depict scenes of the night life he viewed directly from bandstands in thousands of clubs and dance halls over the years, images of a world that existed only in his memories at the time that he painted them. The bold images he presents of musical instruments, clothing, microphones, and neon signs highlight the dramatic lines of dancing bodies in motion, all clearly conveying the bold and fiercely theatrical sense of the self-assertive display that Otis witnessed in his audiences over the years. Otis’s art has enjoyed both commercial success and plaudits from his fellow artists. John Outterbridge, once a bus driver and vocalist in Chicago but subsequently director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, hails the stories Otis tells in his art as “the dominant sounds and motions of our lives, from the small accounts of each day’s events to the vast incommunicable sagas that beset us all.”10

Art historian Mary Lovelace O’Neal wrote the key essay in Colors and Chords, a book featuring Otis’s artwork. While still a student at Howard University in the 1960s, O’Neal distinguished herself as one of the founding activists in what would become the Student Nonviolent Coordinating (p.142) Committee. She went on to a distinguished career as an abstract expressionist painter and critic. Her skilled use of color and her aesthetic and social concerns come to the fore in magnificent works such as Set Them Wings on That Table and Racism Is Like Rain: It Is Raining or It Is Gathering Somewhere.11 O’Neal sees Otis’s art as an expression of the major cultures that have shaped his life: Mediterranean, African, and American. She finds the ultimate contribution in his work to be the honor it does to the Black community, explaining, “The power of the people he is depicting—the presence of the subjects themselves—forced onto our consciousness—is what gives the work its significance.”12

Otis’s commitment to his art expanded when he moved to a farm in Sebastopol, in northern California, in 1991. On a property covered with apple orchards, he had plenty of room for art and music studios. It did not take long before he dotted the grounds with dozens of sculptures of people of various sizes, shapes, and colors, surrealistic animals, deities, demons, and other installations. The sculptures were interspersed among bird coops, tool sheds, and an assortment of old cars, tour buses, and fishing boats.

After nearly fifty years in Los Angeles, Johnny and Phyllis moved to Sebastopol intending to retire to a leisurely life in one of the rural areas that Johnny used to see as a child out the window of his father’s car. “When I was a kid during the Depression,” he recalls, “my daddy would put a few bucks of gas in the Tin Lizzie and we’d drive up here, past those little farms with the white picket fence. I’ve been trying to get back here ever since.”13 Yet the move to Sebastopol hardly led to a life of leisure. Invigorated by his new surroundings, Otis threw himself into a broad range of activities as a visual artist, organic farmer, composer, community activist, educator, and musician.

Although he departed Los Angeles physically, Johnny Otis left a legacy that lived on in that city through the activities of the many musicians he had influenced. Blues and gospel singer Margie Evans combined her experiences and principled commitments as a socially conscious Black woman with the lessons she had learned as a member of the Johnny Otis Orchestra, to fashion a unique role for herself. When Otis moved back to northern California, Evans rose to prominence as a Los Angeles artist-educator dedicated to preserving knowledge about and building respect for the blues. Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1940, Evans had moved to Los Angeles in her early twenties. Raised in a strict church background that did not (p.143) allow her to drink, smoke, or gamble, she grew up listening to her mother sing gospel songs in church and around the house. Evans became a great gospel singer herself, but she also displayed exceptional talent for singing jazz and the blues. She secured work as the featured vocalist in the Ron Marshall Orchestra and attracted a devoted following while singing in shows at the Tikis show room and entertainment complex in suburban Monterey Park. Musician, manager, and union officer Hector Rivera liked her performances and suggested that Evans go see if Johnny Otis could use her services as a vocalist in his band. She tracked him down at the Eldorado Recording Studio and asked if she could audition for him. Johnny had no need for another female vocalist at the time. In fact, he was not sure if he could support the band members he had already hired. Evans’s personal enthusiasm and presence impressed him, however. He asked her if she knew anything about the blues, wary that most young singers he encountered had little knowledge of and even less respect for that tradition. “Yeah, I like the blues!” Evans answered. Johnny started playing a few notes on the piano. Evans responded by singing a wonderful version of Dinah Washington’s “Evil Gal Blues.” Johnny said, “You better wait awhile; we want to talk.” He later recalled, “At that point I knew she was a great singer.”14 Otis brought Evans into his band and featured her singing in the Johnny Otis Show’s memorable performance at the 1970 Monterey Jazz Festival.

Evans attracted attention for her fine performance on “Margie’s Blues” on the Live at Monterey album in 1970. She went on to a career of singing with blues artists Willie Dixon and Pee Wee Crayton. Later, she produced recording sessions for Bobby “Blue” Bland. Evans never left her gospel roots, however, sometimes introducing sacred songs like “We’ve Come This Far by Faith” to her performances at dances. She appeared frequently as a welcome guest on Otis’s radio programs. He often lauded her as one of the great singers in gospel, an artist whose virtuosity placed her in a category with the great Mahalia Jackson. Through her activism on behalf of the heritage of the blues, Evans also demonstrated that she shared some important values with Johnny Otis. As a new member of Otis’s band in the early 1970s, Evans did more than sing and perform well. She also used her position to help organize the community and build progressive institutions inside it. At a moment when blues music had all but disappeared from commercial radio, Evans played a central role in establishing the Southern California Blues Society to promote blues education in the schools, to sponsor (p.144) performances in public spaces accessible to listeners of all ages, and to preserve the heritage of the blues and the artistic, social, and political spaces from which it emerged. In the early 1990s, Evans spearheaded efforts to preserve the 5–4 Ballroom in South Central Los Angeles as an institution devoted to honoring the greatness of Black culture. Working with a sympathetic officer from the Los Angeles Police Department, Evans founded the 5–4 Optimist Club, an organization established to provide music, art, and recreation opportunities for children in the neighborhood.

Evans minces no words in describing her work as part of the Black freedom struggle. “It’s bad enough to live in a country where everybody hates you,” she explains. “People like me who travel a lot, everywhere we go we have to explain to people why they hate us so [much] here in our own country. It’s a hard life in the blues, and too often, because of the hardship of our race, we argue and fight instead of working together.” The blues, she argues, can nevertheless help address these somber realities. “The blues is the cry of my people. It grew out of our suffering from the slavery times. We are still suffering. That is the blues tradition. I have been trying to tell this to people all over the world, and they seem to understand this better in Europe than here in our own land. We have got to get the word out about these things or they will be forgotten. And when you forget your culture, how can you understand who you are? You can’t. And we cannot sit back and depend on others to tell the truth about us. They won’t !”15

Like Margie Evans, Brad Pierce also learned some important musical and life lessons from Johnny Otis. Pierce spent his childhood years in South Central Los Angeles and later in the mostly Black city of Compton. He learned to play piano when he was seven years old but took up the guitar six years later. As a teenager, he lived across the street from Marie Adams and the Three Tons of Joy and often heard them rehearsing. He saw Johnny Otis on television but never in person. Seriously injured in an automobile accident when he was sixteen, Pierce attended Widney High School for the physically handicapped, graduating in 1969.16

As a young guitarist playing in Los Angeles area bands, Pierce encountered an impressive array of musicians, including keyboard specialist Rudy Copeland (who later performed with Solomon Burke and Johnny Guitar Watson), saxophonist Danny Flores, who had recorded with the Champs under the name Chuck Rio, singer Rosie Hamlin of “Angel Baby” fame, and the great Richard Berry. Shortly after Pierce learned to play guitar, he (p.145) secured a job in a band that backed the legendary Coasters at an oldies show in the Alpine Village shopping and entertainment center in suburban Torrance. On that job, he met saxophonist Clifford Solomon, who often played with the Johnny Otis Orchestra. Solomon had worked as bandleader for Ray Charles and shared many of Pierce’s attitudes, opinions, and passions about the music they played. They had exceptional chemistry together as musicians. In 1989, Johnny needed a replacement for Shuggie on one of the occasions when he was off doing his solo work, and Solomon recommended Pierce for the job.

Knowing full well the extent of Shuggie’s artistry on the guitar, Pierce wondered if he was up to the challenges that would face him in the Otis aggregation. Johnny and Clifford Solomon conducted an audition by playing and inviting Pierce to play along. After a few numbers, Johnny asked, “Do you want to be in the band?” Amazed and delighted that he had won the approval of his new boss so quickly, Pierce replied, “Hell, yeah.” He started with the band that weekend without the benefit of rehearsal. Even so, everything went so smoothly that Pierce remembers thinking, “I’ve arrived in musical heaven.” Brad went on to play a central role in the band’s music for the next two decades, playing lead and rhythm guitar, building the band’s core sounds, and even taking over responsibilities as driver of Nellie Belle, the band bus.17

In the Otis ensemble, Pierce used the stage name of Brad Pie. The name had been given to him as a nickname by other musicians, perhaps in tribute to famed Black sportswriter Brad Pye Jr. He became accustomed to the handle and liked it. Like most guitarists of his generational cohort, Pierce had learned to play using a complicated array of pedals and amps, but Johnny told him to “lose all of that,” to “start clean” and imitate the way Freddie Green played in the Count Basie Orchestra. Pierce discovered that it took real discipline to play the big band style. A guitarist working for Otis had to think in terms of the needs of the entire band and could not get too far out in front of the other musicians. Pierce adapted his tone to Otis’s preferences, eschewing the metallic sounds of rock ‘n’ roll for almost an acoustic sound. Playing as a supportive section musician meant that Pierce had fewer opportunities to be recognized as an individual player, yet he still played impressive solos, as evidenced by his scintillating work on the sensuous “Hey Mister Bartender” on the Johnny Otis Show’s 1990 album Good Lovin’ Blues.18

(p.146) Pierce discovered that playing with Johnny Otis posed unique challenges. Johnny has never performed with a preplanned set list. He improvises according to the mood of the crowd and his musicians. A song comes to him like a vision. He plays a few notes to signal the rest of the band and expects them to respond appropriately. Not every musician is ready for this kind of challenge, but those who are value it highly. As singer Jackie Payne once observed about this regimen, “I had to adjust to Johnny, but it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”19 Those who played with him through the years have explained that for all the emphasis on teamwork and section playing, everyone in the band still had an opportunity to display his or her skills and enjoy the spotlight. Pierce describes Johnny’s bands as “horizontal,” by which he means that everyone remained on the same level. Unlike “vertical” bands, in which one or two stars predominate, the Johnny Otis Show created an egalitarian community. Each musician had different skills and a different level of ability, of course, but Pierce felt that in Johnny’s bands these differences were like fingerprints: marks of individuality that expressed differences without necessarily creating a hierarchy of the members’ worth as musicians or people. The key rule in the band was that the rhythm section had to be tight. That was the part of the band that Johnny kept closest to himself. During the years when Pierce played lead guitar, Johnny often made sure his piano and vibe playing was backed up by his son Nicky on drums and his grandson Lucky on bass. Because of the congruence between these family ties and their playing together as musicians, Otis began to refer to Brad Pie as his “nephew.”20

Playing with the Johnny Otis Show for Pierce meant immersing himself in the traditions that Johnny referenced in the music. Acting on his own rather than in response to any request from Johnny, Pierce began attending Otis’s public radio broadcasts in person every Monday night, whether Johnny wanted him to perform or not. He felt that listening to the music Johnny played and paying attention to the people he interviewed would give him the qualities that he knew he needed to become the kind of musician, and the kind of person, that he had to be to play well in this setting. Pierce’s wife, Brooke, also found her life enriched by Brad’s participation in the Otis aggregation. She had grown up listening to the swing music that her jazz drummer father preferred, so she felt right at home with the music Johnny played. Intimidated at first by his manner, she soon began to treasure the ways that Otis enabled the different personalities in his band to both stand out and come together through their playing. Being behind (p.147) the scenes attending the shows as Brad’s partner, she came to feel that music has a spiritual dimension to it, that the Johnny Otis Show was so much more than one person; it was a product of the magic that happens when people come together in mutual respect and fellowship.21

For Brad, playing with the Johnny Otis show entailed all the hardships that come from life in a band: frequent and difficult travel, unpredictable playing conditions, and audiences with uneven levels of interest. Yet Pierce relished being among musicians who just loved to play, who felt grateful for every opportunity because they believed working with one another was like “magic.” On one tour of Japan with Buddy Guy and Albert Collins, the band played an outdoor venue. The Japanese audience loved the music so much that at the end of the gig no one wanted to stop playing. On a “blues cruise” featuring Johnny Adams, Luther Allison, and Albert Collins, the musicians would play their contracted shows until two in the morning, but then find a place on the boat to jam with one another until dawn. “It was like dying and going to blues heaven,” Pierce recalls.22

Brad felt that he shared more than music with Johnny Otis. Growing up in South Central Los Angeles and Compton, he experienced firsthand the racial realities that commanded so much of Johnny’s attention and passion. He felt camaraderie with the views that Otis expressed and honored the scars the bandleader had picked up along the way because of his militant public stands. “I have never in my life met anybody that loves to live like Johnny does. He inspires me to do things and experience things I would never do on my own, because he has no fear of trying something new. A challenge for him is like an adventure.” Many people daydream about doing things, but Johnny has actually done the things he imagined, whether it was making sculptures, raising birds, or starting an organic farm.23

Otis became like a second father to both Brad and Brooke, inviting them to move up to northern California and live on his property alongside Johnny and Phyllis. Brad and Brooke liked being part of the extended Otis family. They especially enjoyed keeping company with Phyllis while she shopped for antiques. But they had a life in the Los Angeles area as well. When Brooke explained she could not leave her job, Johnny offered her one with the band. Although Brad and Brooke decided to stay in Southern California, they remained part of Otis’s extended network of close friends and family members. During one performance backing Rosie Hamlin at San Diego’s Barrio Station, Pierce realized that these opportunities would not last forever. Tears welled up in his eyes as he thought about all he had (p.148) experienced in the band. When the last note died down, Brad walked over to Johnny, hugged him, and said softly, “I just want to say thank you.”24

Singer Barbara Morrison also cherishes her interactions with Johnny Otis. She first met him in 1977, while performing at the Marlton Building in the Crenshaw District in Los Angeles. Her piano accompanist asked if she had ever made a record. When Morrison replied that she had not, he explained that Johnny Otis was looking for a singer and suggested she call him. Morrison doubted that she could actually get the job, so she threw Otis’s number away. Soon Otis called her and made an appointment to record the next day. When she did not show up, Otis phoned her back and asked with his characteristic playfulness if “she had a screw loose.” It was not an auspicious start for Morrison. Once she arrived in the studio, however, nearly all of the songs they were scheduled to record were familiar to her because of her father’s extensive record collection. Otis released their record and remained a devoted promoter of Morrison’s career, singing her praises in interviews and recording with her whenever he could. She felt honored that the person who had discovered Esther Phillips and Etta James had so much faith in her, and she learned from him to trust her own artistry, to stop trying to sound like Barbra Streisand or other popular singers, and instead to be herself.25 Morrison also admired the way Johnny Otis demanded that his musicians be treated with respect. After one long rehearsal at the Santa Monica Civic Center, the stage manager ordered Otis’s tired and hungry band members to clean up the stage before leaving the building. Johnny looked the manager square in the eye and asked, “Would you make the Rolling Stones clean up the stage?” Then he turned to the band and said firmly, “If anyone in this band picks up anything in the way of trash to clean up this stage, you’re fired.” The regular custodial staff eventually cleaned up the stage.26

Otis had other attributes that amazed Morrison. She had never seen a man cook for his family and take care of children the way Johnny did. He displayed his love for them openly and looked after Morrison and other members of the band in much the same way he looked after Janice, Laura, Shuggie, and Nicky. “He would hug his sons and kiss them too just like he did his daughters,” Morrison recalls. “You were even lucky if you were his dog,” she quips, “because he loved all his animals with that same intensity.”27 Even after the Otis family moved north, Morrison remained a close friend. She feels that Johnny treated her like another one of his daughters, and his respect and attention meant a great deal in her life. “I’ve known (p.149) this man for over thirty years now, and the warmth of his love for me as a daughter has matured my whole being. He and his wife sent flowers to my mother’s and father’s funerals, they have loved my sisters and brothers and their children. They have paid my rent, recorded me, and tried to make me a star. They have tried in every way to support me throughout those thirty years. If that’s not love, I don’t know what love is.”28

As Johnny Otis started his new life in Sebastopol, his restless and creative nature soon disrupted his plans for a leisurely retirement. He formed a corporation to market juice made from the organic apples in his orchards and harvested grapes from his fields to make two brands of Johnny Otis Wine: Rhythm Red and Do Right White. He opened the Johnny Otis Market/Deli in downtown Sebastopol to sell organic produce from his fields. When Otis found he could not make a profit solely selling organic produce at that location, he began promoting musical shows in the store at night. He arranged for many of his old rhythm and blues friends to play evenings at the site but also opened the stage to a Scottish-Irish band, to spoken word artists, and to a Jewish klezmer band that played a rollicking version of “Hand Jive,” renamed “Meshugana [crazy person’s] Hand Jive” for the occasion.29

The Johnny Otis Show performed on weekends at the market/deli during its entire fourteen months in business. The band’s performances were sold out three weeks in advance, and their performances kept the market afloat financially. Jim Kohn, who fronted the klezmer band that performed “Meshugana Hand Jive,” handled bookings for shows during the week. Yet despite quality acts, ticket sales were slow on weeknights, and Otis eventually decided to close the business.

In “retirement,” Otis created the same kinds of communities he had always built throughout his life as an artist, business executive, media personality, preacher, and community activist. Johnny’s sons Nicky and Shuggie moved their families onto the property. They helped renovate some small cabins to serve as venues for art and music classes for children from the area. Otis recruited musicians and artists he knew to give these lessons for free or at minimal cost. He worked with local civic leaders, educators, and physicians to form the Johnny Otis Center for the Arts, an unusually ambitious and visionary project aimed at addressing the needs of children in Sonoma County. The JOCA offered free lessons in music, dance, and art, homework help and tutoring, information on nutrition, exercise, and sexuality, as well as health screening, counseling, and care by nurse practitioners, (p.150) pharmacists, psychologists, and physicians. Otis served as guest preacher in some local churches and for a brief time led a congregation of his own that met in Santa Rosa at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. He switched the base of operations for his weekly radio program from its Los Angeles home at KPFK to the studios of KPFA, in Berkeley. Every Saturday morning, he drove the 120-mile round-trip from Sebastopol to Berkeley to do the program live until health considerations compelled him to do remote broadcasts from Sebastopol and then to give up the show altogether.

As he farmed, ran his businesses, hosted his radio program, and promoted the arts, Otis continued to perform, tour, and record with his band. He started to write a new book, tentatively titled Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue, as a way of recording his impressions of the people, places, and music he had encountered in his life. He was able to look in retrospect at a life lived well and a successful career while continuing to do the creative and community work that he loved. Then Watts burned again.

On April 29, 1992, a jury in suburban Simi Valley returned a “not guilty” verdict in the trial of four Los Angeles police officers who had been captured on videotape brutally beating Rodney King, a Black motorist they had arrested allegedly for speeding. The verdict culminated a long history of insults and deprivations experienced by African Americans in Los Angeles. It proved to be the spark that ignited a riot that was even more destructive and bloody than the 1965 Watts uprising. The 1992 riot left fifty-eight people dead and more than two thousand injured. Police officers and National Guard troops made more than seventeen thousand arrests. The violence destroyed or damaged more than a billion dollars worth of property, leveling some twelve hundred buildings.30 It took twenty thousand law enforcement officers and soldiers to suppress the insurrection.31

Otis felt once again that systematic police brutality had set the stage for the riot. “Many LA cops seem to feel,” he observed, “that their gun and badge give them license to apprehend AND mete out punishment. They are judge and jury squads. Never mind that some of the men they nab are innocent of any wrongdoing—UPSIDE YOUR HEAD, anyhow!”32 He made that capitalized phrase the new title of his book in order to underscore how the relentless deployment of unwarranted force by police officers in the ghetto sowed the seeds of the insurrection, stoking the rage of a community that finally fought back by burning buildings, looting stores, and attacking outsiders who occupied or wandered into the ghetto. Johnny felt that the riot underscored how little had changed and how little had (p.151) been won from the struggles in which he participated. He wrote in his new book, “Sometimes I wonder, what the hell good it is if nothing has changed in over fifty years. I mean nothing of any real consequence where black people are concerned…. Could I have even dreamed back in the forties that half a century later my people would still be trapped and oppressed?”33

Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue displays many of the features of Johnny’s previous book and radio programs. He turned over three of the first four chapters of the book to oral testimony by community members. Taken from transcripts of The Johnny Otis Show radio programs, these chapters present memories of the glory days on Central Avenue in the 1940s by attorney James Tolbert, theatrical agent and journalist Lil Cumber, bail bondsman Bob Barber, artist Cal Bailey, saxophonist Buddy Collette, trumpeter and record label owner Dootsie Williams, dancer Frenchy Landry, choreographer Patsy Hunter, and vocalist Caroline Harlson. He followed those transcripts with a series of short sketches. These range widely, offering Otis’s observations about music, politics, and art. They describe the secret language of Lester Young and the secret sorrows of Esther Phillips, the little-known political interests of Count Basie and the diverse approaches to drumming taken by Roy Milton, Kid Lips Hackett, Gus Johnson, and Art Blakey. Otis presented vivid vignettes from his life, tales about growing up in Berkeley and going on the road with the territory bands, about the destructive drinking habits that undermined the careers of Big Joe Turner and Eddie Cleanhead Vinson, about his days as a Holiness preacher, and about his activism and artistic efforts.

Once again Otis had produced a book that plays with history, that moves back and forth inside it, that leaps from decade to decade to summon up some illustrative anecdote or adopted ancestor from the past to shed light on the problems of the present. The book also contains the same sense of mourning and loss that pervades Listen to the Lambs, from Jimmy Witherspoon’s sad lament about how “crack and hardship” now define the Central Avenue that he once knew as a vibrant site of creativity and mutuality to Buddy Collette’s complaint that young musicians no longer force themselves to expand artistically, as the members of his generation were compelled to do by the veteran musicians they played alongside.34 Most somber of all are Johnny’s concluding passages. He explains that having reached his seventies he probably should be cutting back on his work and settling into a life of comfortable retirement. “But it’s not that simple,” he continues, “because the same old hypocritical All-American white man’s (p.152) hypocrisy is still stuck in my throat and I can’t spit it out.”35 He cautions readers that if he seems angry to them, they should imagine how the millions of people trapped in poverty must feel. He concludes the book with a poignant sentence fragment that ends in an ellipsis and speaks volumes, “I’d like a little peace of mind, but no …”36

Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue received rave reviews in Publisher’s Weekly, the Village Voice, Library Journal, Booklist, and the Boston Globe. In 1993, it introduced Otis to a new generation of readers unable to access the by then long out of print Listen to the Lambs. As a text frequently assigned in college and university courses, it has performed important work in publicly connecting Black music to the lives of Black people. The 1992 riot, however, made Johnny Otis feel that he still had urgent educational and political work to do beyond writing this book. His career continued unabated and even prospered in unexpected ways. The album The Spirit of the Black Territory Bands, by Johnny Otis and His Orchestra, received a nomination for a Grammy Award in 1993. Otis was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2000. Yet he found savoring his personal success difficult when Black people still faced such dire conditions in America. When administrators in the extension division of the University of California, Berkeley, and Vista College asked him to teach a course in Black music for them, he jumped at the opportunity, hoping that he could accomplish in a classroom setting some of what he felt he had been unable to succeed at completely with his books and radio programs.

Otis ran his college courses the way he ran his reviews and caravans as an entertainer. Each weekly three-hour meeting of the class was like a carnival coming to town. Otis moved the site of instruction off-campus so that he could include live music performances in the curriculum. He first conducted the class at Kimball’s East nightclub in Emeryville, then at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and eventually set up shop in the alcohol-free Club Ashkenaz, in north Berkeley. Each session began with presentations about musical forms and music theory by Otis’s trumpet and flugelhorn player Larry Douglas or by Vista College music instructor Albert Yamanoha. Then class coordinator, Carlos Zialcita, would take over as master of ceremonies. Johnny would come to the microphone and make a presentation about some aspect of the history of Black music, followed by a guest speaker. Each class ended with a concluding “show” by a musical act. Otis treated his classes to live performances of rhythm and blues by great artists, by (p.153) Sugar Pie DeSanto, Barbara Morrison, Little Milton, and the Johnny Otis band. He illustrated his lectures on gospel music with live performances by the Clara Ward Singers, on jazz with playing by Karlton Hester and Larry Douglas, on acoustic blues with performances by Clarence Van Hook. Guest speakers included activist–scholar Angela Davis, producers Bob Geddins, Chris Strachwitz, and Tom Mazzolini, hip-hop deejay Davey-D, and a varied and stellar group of journalists, academic researchers, and spoken word artists. Each semester ended with a “Red Beans and Rice Night” that featured Johnny cooking his specialty dish and feeding the entire class.

Otis recruited Carlos Zialcita, a teacher in the Oakland school system and a blues harmonica player he had come to know well, to be the coordinator of the Black music course. Zialcita became Otis’s latest protégé as they worked together to teach the class and play music. Born in Manila, in the Philippine Islands, where his family lived upstairs from a nightclub named El Sotano (which means “the basement”), Zialcita included among his earliest memories the smells of stale beer and the sounds of rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll records on the downstairs tavern’s jukebox. He became a fan of Elvis Presley at an early age, largely because of the popularity in Manila of Presley’s films King Creole and Jailhouse Rock. Yet while Zialcita liked Presley, the music that really moved him came from his exposure to Black entertainers, to Ray Charles, Fats Domino, the Coasters, the Platters, and others. “I had never heard of slavery. I had not seen many Blacks. But this music just spoke to me,” he remembers.37

Zialcita had moved to San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood shortly before his tenth birthday. In that neighborhood, his classmates and friends included Mexicans, Blacks, and Filipinos. Carlos made his performing debut on his school’s stage singing the bass part on the Coasters’ song “Charlie Brown” as a member of a vocal quartet made up of Blacks and Filipinos. His real passion, however, was jazz. As a teenager, Zialcita liked listening to music by Miles Davis, George Shearing, Cal Tjader, and Wynton Kelly. Frustrated because he was too young to get into most nightclubs where jazz musicians played, he was overjoyed to discover that the Both/ And Club on Divisadero Street roped off a section where minors could drink soft drinks and listen to the likes of Pharaoh Sanders, Jon Hendricks, Joe Henderson, and Bobby Hutcherson. After his high school graduation he took a trip to New York’s Greenwich Village, mainly to listen to jazz, proudly wearing a polka dot tie decorated with a facsimile of the cover of Miles Davis’s album My Funny Valentine.38

(p.154) His aspiring immigrant family encouraged Zialcita to associate exclusively with whites and to date blond-haired women, but Carlos identified himself as a proud person of color. As a student at the College of Marin, his roommate was the head of the Black Student Union. Zialcita participated in the activities of the campus Third World Liberation Front. He remembers taking up the blues harmonica at the same time that he developed his political consciousness, becoming aware of the Black Panther Party, the United Farm Workers union, the Brown Berets, and the Red Guard at the same time that he became aware of Junior Wells and James Cotton. He had seen Paul Butterfield in concert many times and was impressed that someone who was not Black could learn and seemingly master the blues idiom. These new elements in his life seemed to blend together perfectly.39

Zialcita’s performing career began in an unusual venue: the prison band at San Quentin. He was not an inmate, but some youthful indiscretions had resulted in his classification as a potential offender in need of constructive activity, and a counselor directed him toward playing music with and for inmates in the prison system. The lead guitar player in the San Quentin band also doubled as the heavyweight boxing champion of the prison. The rest of the musicians were drawn from the penitentiary population, its staff, and participants in work furlough programs. The group played mainly in prisons, jails, and youth reformatories. This band enabled Zialcita to sharpen and refine his skills on the harmonica so thoroughly that he soon secured a regular job with the Chico David Blues Band. Zialcita chuckles now when he recalls thinking as a member of the celebratory and self-conscious youth culture of that era that it was amazing that David could still play well even though he was thirty-eight years old! Eventually the Chico David Blues Band became the backup ensemble for singer–pianist Charles Brown at the Zanzibar Lounge. Zialcita and his band mates wore dashikis as their band uniform and played mostly at clubs serving a Black clientele in Marin City and Oakland. For a time they worked as the house band at the Colorado Negro Voters Club in Denver and later backed up Lowell Fulson at the Mr. Major’s nightclub in east Oakland. By that point, Zialcita felt that he had come a long way from Manila.40

Playing blues harp in different bands led Zialcita to experience dimensions of Black life and Black culture that he valued greatly. He learned to make cornbread in the kitchen of bandleader Eddie Ray’s east Oakland home. Ray regaled him with stories about taking breaks from picking cotton as a youth so that he could play the harmonica. Carlos collaborated (p.155) with Joe Louis Walker, sometimes playing after hours at a club called 1-2-3 Look at Mr. Lee under a freeway near Sausalito. Years later, Walker often came to hear Carlos play. He always brought along his mother, a woman who stood out in a nightclub crowd because she wore a blond wig, kept her sunglasses on at night, and sipped drinks from a bottle that she kept hidden in her cleavage. His friendship with Walker led Carlos to a stint in the gospel group Spiritual Corinthians, with whom he made two records. Carlos toured with guitarist Sonny Rhodes and played in bands backing up a long list of blues stars, including Charles Brown, Big Mama Thornton, Pee Wee Crayton, and Lowell Fulson. He also played on a rap album by the Coup, one of Oakland’s most politically conscious hip-hop groups, an album with the unforgettable title Kill My Landlord.41

Zialcita’s immersion in Black culture did not prevent him from branching out to other cultures or delving more deeply into his own identity as a Filipino American. He married the talented vocalist Myrna Del Rio, a bilingual Afro-Honduran who grew up listening to her dark-skinned Carib grandmother speak a language of African derivation. The couple made records together and performed as a duet in clubs in Chiapas, Mexico. Zialcita originally encountered Johnny Otis largely because of a connection with another Filipino. His skills as a blues harmonica player led Carlos to a steady job with the band Domingo and Friends, fronted by Sugar Pie DeSanto’s brother Domingo. The journey Carlos had started as a child in Manila, listening to Black blues songs on a jukebox, now led him to playing in a band with an Afro-Filipino whose sister was one of the great artists of rhythm and blues. Born in 1935 as Umpeylia Marsema Balinton, Sugar Pie was raised to respect the cultures of both her Filipino father, a merchant seaman, and her African American mother. She grew up in San Francisco in a family of ten children who spoke both English and Tagalog at home. Her mother played the piano, but Sugar Pie found her passion mostly in dance and song. She took five years of ballet lessons and enjoyed singing with her friends in their sanctified churches (even though she was a Catholic), as well as out on the street corners of the Fillmore District in San Francisco. Sugar Pie’s sister occasionally backed up Etta James as a member of the Peaches, and James’s success stoked Sugar Pie’s ambitions. Johnny Otis first saw and heard her in a talent show at the Ellis Theatre in San Francisco in 1955. She did so well, he brought her into the studio to record. Otis thought that the given and family names she carried would be too hard for fans to pronounce and remember. He searched for a nickname that (p.156) could be used to package her, just as he had when he changed Esther Mae Jones’s name to Little Esther, Jamesetta Rogers’s name to Etta James, and Willie Mae Thornton’s name to Big Mama Thornton. Balinton’s big voice contrasted with her petite body. She was five feet tall, weighed only eighty-five pounds, and wore a size three shoe. In those days microphones could not be adjusted to the height of the singer, so in order to record, Balinton had to stand on a box to reach the microphone. Seeing her standing on that perch, straining her body so she could project her music into the microphone, Otis said, “You look cute, like a little old sugar pie.” In an industry that included artists named Butterbeans or Hambone, Sugar Pie seemed an appropriate handle. Don Barksdale, Johnny’s old neighbor then a popular disc jockey and club owner, decided, however, that Sugar Pie alone was too informal, so he came up with DeSanto for her last name.42

Whatever fears Sugar Pie might have had about a career in show business dissipated when she learned the ropes from Johnny Otis. “He was real nice to work for,” she told a reporter years later. “He’s a real easy person.”43 Eventually, DeSanto would tour with James Brown, Willie Dixon, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Howlin’ Wolf, scoring hit records on the charts, including “Slip-in Mules” and a duet with Etta James, “In the Basement.” A diminutive person with great stage presence, a wonderful voice, and an attractive face and body, DeSanto became a target for nearly every romantic (or lecherous) musician she encountered. She held her own, however, proudly recalling, “I refused all those old goats.”44 She got her own way onstage as well, insisting that club managers set up the venue correctly and requiring her musicians to join her in giving their best effort for every show. Maurice White, of Earth, Wind, and Fire, played with her at one time and remembers that Sugar Pie ordered band members around using “cuss words that hadn’t been invented yet.”45

DeSanto recorded songs for many of the major rhythm and blues labels: Federal, Aladdin, Chess, and Veltone. She enjoyed success as a live performer, recording artist, and songwriter. In the early 1960s, she made records with her then husband, guitar player and singer Pee Wee Kingsley. While on the road promoting their Veltone hit, “I Want to Know,” DeSanto and Kingsley encountered an exceptionally ugly instance of white supremacy. Near Tupelo, Mississippi, a police officer who doubled as the local judge stopped the couple, allegedly for exceeding the speed limit. The contrast between DeSanto’s light skin and long straight hair and Kingsley’s dark skin led the (p.157) officer to conclude that he had nabbed an interracial couple—a Black man and a white woman. He impounded their car and incarcerated Kingsley in the local jail. Sugar Pie and her husband protested that they were a married Black couple and had broken no laws. The officer demanded to see a copy of their marriage license, forcing Kingsley to spend two weeks in jail while DeSanto waited nearby in a local hotel. When their marriage certificate from Nevada arrived, the authorities reluctantly let them go, offering no apology for their arrest and confinement.46

In 1997, Otis invited Sugar Pie to perform at his country store and nightclub in Sebastopol. To back her up, she brought along her brother’s band, featuring Carlos Zialcita playing blues harmonica. Sugar Pie and Carlos had actually met before, back when he was a member of the Eddie Ray band in the 1970s. Later he played behind her as a member of Domingo and Friends. Carlos and Sugar Pie hit it off well right from the start, musically and personally. She asked Carlos if he was a Filipino. He replied that he was and, trying to connect with Sugar Pie, said he knew that she was a Filipina. In her characteristically feisty fashion, DeSanto replied, “I’m not just a Fil-ipina. I’m a spook-ipina.”47

Sugar Pie was sixty-one years old at that time. She had lost none of her vocal skills, however, and was as dynamic onstage as ever, kicking her legs high in the air, moving sensuously in a tight pants suit, and instructing her musicians to stand up, turn around, and shake their rear ends for the audience. Johnny enjoyed the entire show, but he especially appreciated Carlos’s playing. The two of them got a chance to talk, and Johnny found that they shared many ideas and attitudes about music, culture, race, and social justice. When he discovered that Zialcita held a day job as a teacher in the Oakland school system, he invited him to help plan and teach the class on Black music. As they worked together on the class, Otis and Zialcita found that they were kindred spirits. The course drew huge enrollments and enthusiastic responses from students. Some of those enrolled, however, complained that material about white racism had no place in a Black music course, maintaining that it was “divisive” to bring up the history of racism in the class. Like Johnny, Carlos found it was impossible to understand Black music without studying the social and historical contexts out of which it had emerged. Even a small number of student complaints needed to be listened to and respected, of course, but in most cases these statements simply meant that the covers had been pulled off, that individuals with merely (p.158) consumer attachments to Black culture did not enjoy being reminded of the unequal conditions, opportunities, and life chances that gave the music its determinate tones and textures. During one class, a student asked why they couldn’t just enjoy the music without being troubled by the history that surrounded it. Carlos found himself answering before Johnny could. “I’ve played this music for years with some of the most brilliant musicians and most wonderful people I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. Many of them became musicians as an alternative to sweating in the fields picking cotton. They created great music and never got credit or compensation for it. Some did not even own a suit to be buried in when they died, but they made millions of people happy. I can’t teach the music without teaching what I know about why it exists.” The class gave him a standing ovation, and Carlos noticed Johnny standing and clapping as well.48

Zialcita asked Otis to produce his blues album Train through Oakland in 2000. Otis not only agreed but also insisted on providing his own band as backup musicians. They recorded the album in Otis’s home studio for no charge. Carlos stayed at Johnny’s house while they worked together on the project, and he learned a great deal about music and about life from that sojourn. Johnny worked hard at music, but he had fun too. If Carlos had difficulty mastering a song, Johnny might tell him to take a break and help himself to the pot of red beans and rice Otis kept simmering on his stove. Somehow, Carlos’s playing improved upon his return. One night Zialcita could not sleep and heard music coming from the hallway. He left his room and found Johnny in a bathrobe playing the same vibraphone he had played on Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love,” not really practicing, just enjoying himself. Carlos pulled out his harmonica and accompanied him. When they finished, Johnny said gently, “I wish I had met you years ago.”49

From Otis, Carlos learned how to assess and cope with his own limitations as an artist. Johnny would deprecate his own musical abilities, especially as a singer, to prove to Zialcita that good records could be made without having overwhelming vocal talent. “Neither one of us is really a great singer,” Otis would advise, “but we can still sing. Just know thyself.” Otis also made his signature move in giving Zialcita a new name, dubbing him the “Thrilla from Manila” in the liner notes for Train through Oakland. Zialcita is proud of the album they made together but also treasures how the process of making it enabled him to grow as an artist and as a person. “Johnny could always say something that was not only kind,” he recalls, “but really went straight to the heart of who you were.”50


(1.) Lawrence Christon, “Johnny Otis: 40 Years of Preaching R&B Sermons,” Los Angeles Times, April 3, 1985, E1.

(2.) O’Neal, “Colors and Chords,” 23.

(3.) Otis, Upside Your Head! 132–36.

(4.) O’Neal, “Colors and Chords,” 24.

(6.) Ibid., 26.

(7.) Hildebrand, “A Unique American Life,” 8.

(8.) Samella Lewis, African American Art and Artists (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 198.

(9.) Sarah Schrank, Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 134–35.

(10.) John Outterbridge, foreword, in Otis, Colors and Chords, 4.

(11.) Lewis, African American Art and Artists, 299–301.

(12.) O’Neal, “Colors and Chords,” 23.

(13.) Hamlin, “Soulful Sounds in Sebastopol.”

(14.) The Johnny Otis Show, Johnny Otis Collection, Archives of African American Music and Culture, Indiana University, ATM Reel #2529.

(15.) Jung and Rhyne, “Live at the 5–4 Ballroom,” 39.

(16.) Interview with Brad and Brooke Pierce, February 11, 2006, Canoga Park, California.

(18.) The Johnny Otis Show, Good Lovin’ Blues, Ace Records B000008J60.

(19.) Lee Hildebrand, “Breaking Out: Jackie Payne,” Living Blues 170, November/ December 2003, 20.

(20.) Interview with Brad and Brooke Pierce, February 11, 2006, Canoga Park, California.

(25.) E-mail from Barbara Morrison to George Lipsitz, August 20, 2007.

(29.) Hamlin, “Soulful Sounds in Sebastopol.”

(30.) Schiesl, “Behind the Shield,” 159.

(31.) Horne, Fire This Time, 355–56.

(32.) Otis, Upside Your Head! 148.

(33.) Ibid., 163.

(34.) Ibid., 4, 21.

(35.) Ibid., 163.

(36.) Ibid., 164.

(37.) Interview with Carlos Zialcita, August 31, 2004, Berkeley, California.

(42.) Lee Hildebrand, “Sugar Pie DeSanto,” Living Blues 186, September/October 2006, 34.

(43.) James Porter, “Sugar Is Sweet,” Roctober 24 (1999).

(44.) Hildebrand, “Sugar Pie DeSanto,” 34, 35.

(45.) Porter, “Sugar Is Sweet.”

(46.) Hildebrand, “Sugar Pie DeSanto,” 37.

(47.) Interview with Carlos Zialcita, August 31, 2004, Berkeley, California.