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Race Issue Is Central for Johnny Otis' Blues : R&B: Now 68, the legendary music figure will bring his 14-piece band to Newport Beach's Cafe Lido.

March 02, 1990|RICK VANDERKNYFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALTADENA — Johnny Otis calls it "interim therapy." When he isn't on the road with his rhythm-and-blues revue, he busies himself with projects: growing vegetables, tending his menagerie--parrots, pigeons, ducks and bantam chickens--and working on his art.

Half of the sunlit studio in his sprawling home is filled with paintings, mostly stylized remembrances of jazz and R&B shows that Otis, 68, has seen or played. The other half of the room is crowded with his fanciful plaster sculptures, most of them based on people he has met.

Otis, who brings his 14-piece band to the Cafe Lido in Newport Beach on Sunday, showed off one sculpture he is finishing, inspired by a man he knew as Uncle Blue in '40s Los Angeles. He was a one-man band who played for pennies and nickels, sometimes for youngsters in the heavily black Central Avenue neighborhood where Otis lived, but usually for the white businessmen downtown.

Uncle Blue played in rags, but when he was found dead in his Skid Row motel room, $30,000 was found sewn into his clothes. Later it was discovered that he had several bank accounts and was putting a daughter through medical school.

"He was not such an unsophisticated cotton-picker after all," Otis says with a smile.

"A racist society has certain perceptions of minorities," he adds. "If he was dressed clean and working downtown in the '40s, the white people would have just walked on by."

As it was, Otis says, "they thought he was quaint."

Questions of race and racism are close to the heart of Otis, a white man who has spent a lifetime immersed in black culture, especially America's black musical tradition. Otis grew up in Berkeley and was an accomplished drummer when he reached his teens, touring with various swing bands. He had his own big band by the mid-'40s, which he pared down later to a nine-piece unit.

His musical career has included stints as nightclub owner, talent scout and record producer. These days he has his own weekly radio show at KPFK-FM in Los Angeles. In addition to creating such songs as "Harlem Nocturne" (1946) and "Willie and the Hand Jive" (1958), Otis is also credited with "discovering" several acclaimed singers.

"I found Little Willie John, Jackie Wilson and Hank Ballard & the Midnighters all during one talent show" in Detroit, Otis recalls. He first heard Esther Phillips, a neighborhood girl from the days when he lived and ran a nightclub in Watts, when she was 9 (she cut her first record with him when she was 13). Big Mama Thornton was discovered during a concert swing through Texas.

Otis was in San Francisco in the '50s when he got a call from his manager about a teen-age singer who wanted to audition. Otis tried to schedule an audition, but the youngster didn't want to wait: "She said, 'I want to sing for you right now," he recalls.

They met right away, he hired her on the spot and--after she lied about getting permission from her mother--she traveled with Otis to Los Angeles, where they recorded "Dance With Me, Henry." That was Etta James, who still sings with Otis occasionally.

One of his more recent discoveries is Barbara Morrison, his featured singer from 1976-88. Morrison is the house singer at the Cafe Lido and books touring acts for the nightclub. Otis plans to bring her on stage for a few numbers Sunday.

"Those were my formative years," says Morrison, who toured with Otis throughout Europe and the United States. "I wouldn't trade that time for anything."

Morrison, who has since sung with such acts as Eddie (Cleanhead) Vinson and the Crusaders, was just starting out when she met Otis.

"When I met him he was recording, and he needed a singer, and \o7 bam\f7 , I fell right in," Morrison says. "I call him Dad. . . . Johnny and I had some real nice chemistry, and he had chemistry like that with everyone in the band."

Otis' current lineup includes four singers and six horns. He still tours regularly and has stops this summer planned for Japan, Italy, Czechoslovakia and--in a concert sponsored by the State Department--the Soviet Union.

But Otis, who takes to the road for up to two years at a stretch, is somewhat blase about visiting the site of so much ongoing history. "Well, I wouldn't say \o7 excited\f7 is the right word," Otis says, responding to a question. "I'm certainly anxious to see any new country. You meet new people, see a new culture."

When not on the road he continues to record, having recently finished an album of new tunes that will be released in about a month.

He plays the new tunes in concert, along with his own earlier songs and hits by other R&B artists. While his U.S. audiences tend to be rooted in nostalgia and heavy on the Baby Boomers, audiences in Britain and Western Europe include young and old fans.

"They have a taste for traditional black music," Otis says. "In a sense, they know the music better than (audiences) know it here."

As for contemporary popular music--well, Otis has his reservations. He likes some rap, though he worries that much of it is strident and arrogant, and he finds no redeeming qualities in heavy metal.

"You look at those people, and they never smile on stage. It's all grimaces and Nazi crosses," Otis says.

Mostly, though, he worries that the ubiquitousness of today's pop keeps young people from experiencing other forms of music--including, but not limited to, jazz, R&B and gospel.

The music industry, Otis says, will promote only the musical forms that provide the highest profit return.

"They grab these kids from the cradle, and they condition them," Otis says. "So by the time they're old enough to make a musical decision on their own, it's already made for them. They're atrophied."

\o7 The Johnny Otis Band plays at 3 and 6 p.m. Sunday at Cafe Lido, 501 30th St., Newport Beach. Admission: $12.50. Information: (714) 675-2968. \f7

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