Magazine article IAJRC Journal

Bob Porter on Books

Magazine article IAJRC Journal

Bob Porter on Books

Article excerpt

Johnny Otis, Clark Terry and Timme Rosenkrantz

Johnny Otis died earlier this year at the age of 90. He had been a part of the black music scene in Los Angeles from the mid-1940s until his retirement, about fifteen years ago. His earliest records were with an exceptional, Basie-style big band which featured Teddy Buckner, Henry Coker, Paul Quinichette and Jimmy Rushing. The band didn't last that long but the recordings (which were all available on the French Classics label) are well worth seeking out. He played drums, piano, vibes and sang a little but he was better known as an exceptional organizer and bandleader.

Otis came to the fore in the early days of Rhythm & Blues and his biggest years were 1949-1951 when he was one of the top artists in the field. His touring Rhythm & Blues Caravan was a model for the R&B package shows of the 1950s. His Savoy singles produced eleven hits-some double-sided-including three number one R&B chart hits! He had another huge hit with "Willie And The Hand Jive" for Capitol in 1958.

Otis was also a song-writer, producer, DJ and label owner in a lengthy career that was nothing if not diverse. In addition, he worked for Congressman Mervyn Dymally and was an ordained preacher. With all this activity going on one might expect an encyclopedia-sized biography but Midnight At The Barrelhouse by George Lipsitz (University of Minnesota Press, 2010) weighs in at only two hundred thirty pages including index. There are nineteen photos which seems a bit skimpy considering the career of the subject.

Lipsitz is a professor of black studies and sociology at University of California, Santa Barbara and there will be too much of his theorizing for many readers. There is no discography and some key members of the Otis group are barely mentioned. At least two of his producers, including Ralph Bass, are not mentioned at all. As one view of black society in LA, 1940s-70s, this is pretty good but in terms of musical emphasis and what the book could have been, the professor gets a B-.

Biography is different than autobiography and while it is nice to get the word from the horse's mouth, there are inherent problems in dealing with a man in his late eighties. I'm sad to report that Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry with Gwen Terry (University of California Press, 2011) comes up short in several regards. When recounting the personnel for a particular edition of the Basie band, Terry could remember only two of the five saxophonists. That information is a matter of public record. Why did someone not supply the details? Terry's memory plays tricks with him on several occasions and results in some stories being run together. About a third of the book deals with his personal side, military experience and family relationships prior to his professional career.

There is much to admire here. Terry's memories of Duke Ellington are vivid and compelling. His baptism of fire came on November 11, 1951 when he joined the band, in St. Louis, for a concert at Kiel auditorium. There are four pages devoted to this single occasion and they are fascinating. Chapters tend to be short but focused.

The racist policies of television network big wheels come in for discussion and the role of the Urban League in helping him become the first black staff musician at NBC is well detailed. Clearly incidents such as this linger in his memory and the stories are told in detail. His memories of the Tonight Show years are lots of fun although some details get mangled in the telling. His complicated relationship with Quincy Jones seems a bit truncated and one wishes for more details of the European episode. …

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