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SAVOY 788; JUNE 1951



In all of rock nobody was more prolific – or more successful – in the calendar year of 1950 than Johnny Otis, who oversaw a diverse musical conglomerate that was truly impressive any way you cut it – commercially or artistically.

Ten national hits featuring a multitude of vocalists during that year made him the biggest name on the scene even though he was not even the featured instrumental star of the group and never opened his mouth on record.

Though the practice of an omnipotent bandleader overseeing a vast array of soloists was standard practice in big band jazz for years, it was a rarity in rock until he showed its worth and in the ensuing months a number of others – Joe Morris, The Griffin Brothers, even arguably Dave Bartholomew recently – had begun to imitate it with some success.

But for Johnny’s outfit times have changed and after he lost his biggest star when Little Esther departed for another label Otis scrambled to find a replacement. But when those records failed to connect with audiences, despite their quality, he or Savoy Records became impatient and so in an attempt to right the flailing ship Johnny Otis is forced to do what he had long hoped to avoid.

He started to sing.


Nobody’s Gonna Put You Out
Adjusting to the change brought about by Esther’s departure wasn’t going to be easy of course but it wasn’t for lack of effort on Otis’s part.

Their first attempt at introducing a potential new female attraction resulted in a great record with Marilyn Scott, a gospel singer turned blues artist who made her one rock side – Beer Barrel Boogie – an absolute killer. Yet for some reason she wasn’t brought on board full time so he turned to Linda Hopkins next.

She also delivered a really strong first effort with Doggin’ Blues, but for some inexplicable reason she too was soon cast aside. Of course he still had Mel Walker in tow and they kicked off 1951 with one of his best records in Gee Baby, which was a sizable hit and seemed to show that maybe they’d be alright without their precocious female counterpart.

But by spring Savoy was dragging out older songs from the vault, both with Esther and without hoping to keep Johnny’s star burning brightly, but they were poor choices that no matter how hard Savoy pushed them (and they were still touting I Dream in the trade ads in late June) it was not going to make much difference.

But rather than trying desperately to promote a singer who was no longer still in their employ on a song that was an aesthetic failure to begin with, what they should’ve been focused on was hyping the fact that Johnny Otis himself was finally singing a lead on All Nite Long.

Many at Savoy must’ve wondered what had taken him so long to raise his voice on mic, for not only did this return him to the charts but it was the first tentative steps on a lengthy run where the biggest vocal star in Otis’s orbit was none other than Johnny himself.


Grab Your Baby And Rock!
Even though the trumpet opening doesn’t fill you with a lot hope it plays with the intent of getting things moving and when Johnny comes into the picture you definitely sit up and take notice.

To the end of his days Otis would always insist he was no great shakes as a singer, but that’s modesty talking because while his voice was hardly made of velvet, he was always in key, he had a nose for rhythm, he sang full of conviction and more than anything he understood the demands of the material which he himself wrote making sure the songs were in his comfort zone.

For his first effort All Nite Long was a good way with which to introduce himself to the world as it is basically a recruitment drive for rock ‘n’ roll itself using some stock scenes and a loping delivery that is informal, yet inviting.

The basic premise is not that much different than a lot of songs we’ve come across over the years, from Amos Milburn’s Chicken Shack Boogie on down, where the singer’s job is to set the scene of a non-stop party while the infectious music rolls along pulling everybody in.

What sets this apart is the pace of it all. Maybe Otis was worried about dragging out his vocals in a slower tempo and so he sped this up to make sure whatever sign of nerves he was exhibiting would help put it across rather than hurt his cause… then again maybe he just understood that by 1951 rock ‘n’ roll’s most durable quality was its musical excitement and there’s no need to keep a song like this in low gear when you can keep it jumping.

That’s just what he does too, his voice bouncing along in a relaxed gait and the roll call of activities at this bash are sure to have people lining up at the door… “A tubful of whiskey and a barrel of gin”, lots of women, a hot band and an open door policy for anyone who wants to join in.

Along the way he offers side commentary on social issues, much like Louis Jordan’s Saturday Night Fish Fry, which itself was taken from Otis’s old buddy Big Jay McNeely’s Road House Boogie, and that off-the-cuff delivery adds to the low key communal nature of this and goes a long way in making you comfortable.

Otis is, if not quite a revelation vocally, at least a pleasant surprise but where this misses its chance to really excel is in the arrangement, which is usually his bread and butter. He gives far too much responsibility to the trumpet which serves as the lead instrument, though the guitar and piano help to pick up the slack a lot during the proceedings, and while the trumpet isn’t squawking like the instrument was prone to do it still still would’ve been better served to let a tenor sax rampage around the house instead.

But maybe just as egregious a decision was to have his band members, presumably the other more suitable horns at that, deliver the vocal chorus each time through and it’s here they fall a little short, lacking the enthusiasm and vocal projection it requires to really drive this home. Though the overall spirit never lets up the music at times seems as though it were better written than it was arranged and performed by the band.


Let’s Rock Awhile
When a novice singer is the best thing on a record that’s usually a sign there’s trouble, but that’s not quite the case here.

The song itself paints a really good picture of a very common event in the lives of the rock audience of the day and with the sharp-eyed spoken word social commentary in the close it makes the perils faced by the community all too clear and gives the performance a theatrical bent that hits home.

The fact that these depictions in All Nite Long seem so authentic is not just due to the wording Otis chose, but also the manner of his delivery. Johnny’s voice balances precariously between anxious and relaxed and if such a combination seems inherently at odds with one another you clearly aren’t listening closely.

Then again maybe if you don’t focus on analyzing a song, only enjoying it, that’s a little easier to miss. He’s so at ease behind the wheel that it seems he’d been doing this forever. He handles every turn with a light touch, never over-steering, accelerating coming out of those turns and easing off the gas, but never slamming on the breaks, heading into the next one.

It’s funny to call the debut vocal performance of a bandleader who sang as a last resort a masterful technical achievement, but that’s what it is… not because his voice itself, but how he applies it.

After this it’d be awhile before Johnny treated singing as anything more than a passing fancy, the rest of his Savoy output featured his usual vocalists while his stints at Mercury and Peacock had him sporadically taking a lead. Not until he started his own Dig Records label in the mid-1950’s did he begin handling a lot of vocals and by the time he landed at Capitol he was the main vocal draw.

By then most of the people he’d started this journey with had left however and so he had little choice but to take the reins. But for the time being he’d mostly stick with what got him this far, meaning as enjoyable as this is he was still treating singing as an anomaly.


(Visit the Artist page of Johnny Otis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)