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The infernal recording ban that dominated the proceedings for not just rock ‘n’ roll but all of music in 1948 has finally been lifted… not that everyone had been adhering to it for the last few months anyway.

In rock ‘n’ roll even more than pop music the shutdown had grown increasingly costly for the advancement of the style as a whole as time wore on. The early tentative efforts in rock that had been cut in late 1947 became rapidly outdated by summer. So as befitting its reputation as an outlaw music, more record labels and artists circumvented the ban by slipping into the studio and playing with the lights out to avoid detection, though it shouldn’t have been too hard to figure out when artists like The Orioles, who only came into existence in the spring of 1948, released a new record in July, followed by The Ravens who covered said record before the fall arrived.

The benefits to this became evident as they each got hits out of their indiscretions, as did others who did the same such as saxophonists Paul Williams and Hal Singer as they were able to pinpoint the attributes that were generating the most excitement and capitalize on this information while those who didn’t break the rules sat on the sidelines collecting dust as the music passed them by.

But now, as of December 14th, the ban was officially over and things could return to normal. From this point forward the natural progression of rock ‘n’ roll would take place in real time and those artists who fell behind the curve would have no one to blame but themselves.

Then there were those artists who were only just joining the fray, the decision as to which road to pursue having been made for them by the events of the preceding months as the declining commercial prospects of earlier brands of music they were more in tune with became all too apparent, all while rock’s commercial might was growing more powerful every day.

So it was that Johnny Otis entered the scene and threw his fate in with the style that would soon define him and eventually make him one of the longest lasting multi-talented visionaries the music had ever witnessed.

Stompin’ Time
Johnny Otis had already lived a diverse and unlikely musical life. The only white member of black territory bands he yearned to play the swing music he grew up loving but came along a bit too late for that to become a reality, so instead he had pared down his own big band when ensconced at Club Alabam in Los Angeles where he honed the tight rhythmic backing the next big thing in music would thrive on.

He’d gotten a pre-rock regional hit a few years back with a moody instrumental (Harlem Nocturne) but now even that approach was a bit outdated and so he further explored more modern musical avenues, doing (on one of those aforementioned clandestine) sessions behind Joe Swift which is where we first met him back in September, flexing his arranging muscles in ways that were startling to hear on his first national hit (though Otis WAS credited on the label along with Swift) with That’s Your Last Boogie.

Otis promptly used the ill-gotten money FROM those illegal sessions to start The Barrelhouse Club in Watts where he and his band held court for a number of years until their success on record forced them to tour the country to take advantage of their drawing power while they could. From that point on he’d score hits on multiple labels, owning his own imprint along the way, as well as acting as an A&R man/producer for other companies, not to mention talent scout, songwriter and radio deejay and TV host. On the side he ran for political office, painted and sculpted, was the pastor at his own church and a farmer who sold his own organic apple juice.

It was a full, rich life to say the least.

The Barrelhouse Club, though only in existence for a few years, remained an oft-mythologized touchstone in his career travels, an idyllic setting for all he’d hoped for. Yet the dream once realized became too small to hold his growing ambitions and once he’d let it go he could never return to it other than in memory.

The club was started by Johnny and his partner Bardu Ali, who’d once sang with Chick Webb where he convinced Webb to hire a young Ella Fitzgerald and he later became Redd Foxx’s manager. It was with Johnny Otis however that his greatest ambitions came to fruition.

The Barrelhouse was nothing special to look at, a converted Mexican beer joint in the heart of Watts, but it was the first club to exclusively feature the new black music as its draw and Otis, already a talented artist, painted cartoon figures on the wall while they made their money selling Coca-Cola since they didn’t have a license for hard booze and the customers needed something to mix with what they smuggled in.

In its short time however the unassuming club would become the focal point of the west coast rock scene where all of the big names associated with Otis over the next few years would be discovered… singers Little Esther, The Robins, drummer Leard Bell, guitarist Pete Lewis and one who didn’t stick with Otis for long, perhaps because he had the potential to eclipse him commercially and thus was afforded opportunities of his own which he quickly took advantage of, namely saxophonist Big Jay McNeely.


Honkin’ Time
McNeely lived down the road from the club, just a five minute walk from his house, and it’d be the Barrelhouse’s stage where he’d first make his reputation playing as he laid waste to the other competition on their amateur night shows prompting Otis to add him to his own band.

Right from the start he was a star attraction. Hunter Hancock, who like Otis was a white guy immersed in black culture and the most popular R&B dee-jay in the city, hosted talent shows each Thursday at the club and would stop in on other nights just to be a part of the atmosphere. He described the scene with Big Jay on stage with equal parts awe and reverence, saying, “The place was so full it took me five minutes to get across the floor and everybody was jumpin’! The sides of The Barrelhouse were really pulsing. Big Jay McNeely was blowing a fine tenor sax and there wasn’t a quiet moment the whole time I was there”.

In the past year since Paul Williams had launched the rock instrumental with Hastings Street Bounce its popularity had grown exponentially while its style had become ever more flamboyant. Earl Bostic had set the bar high in that regard with an unmatched technical proficiency to boot, but after his initial forays into this realm his releases since last spring had been mellow jazz sides which left the door open for cats like Wild Bill Moore and Hal Singer who blew the lid off the controlled sax jams and turned them into crazed workouts that attracted listeners like ants to a picnic.

But as good as those guys were, as great as their records sounded, they were still conflicted over their musical direction. Loud boisterous rock instrumentals were selling, but they were veterans of the old-school where that approach was considered rather obnoxious. They’d take part in it, their noses held shut at times perhaps, but were largely hoping for the day when audiences came to their senses and let them go back and earn an honest living playing a more orderly brand of music.

Not so Big Jay McNeely, who all of 21 years old had no allegiance to the previous standards of horn playing which the others all had to shake free of in order to feel reasonably comfortable with the type of garish displays that rock insisted upon. For McNeely this type of honking, sounding almost obscene in its intent, came naturally to him, it wasn’t a step down as it had been for so many other older horn players, and so when given the platform with which to display it and with an audience who demanded it, he delivered everything they craved and then some without any reservations at all.


In Record Time
To that end Barrelhouse Stomp isn’t discreet about their intent. It starts out with a full horn section doing a dive bombing run, the assault on the senses is overwhelming with Lem Talley’s baritone sax joined by George Washington (NOT the former President, in case you were going to ask) on trombone and John Anderson on trumpet providing the tight formation which hammers away, swooping low, climbing high and weaving in and out of one another’s flight path.

But at the head of the formation is McNeely, his tenor sax straining at the seams already before he busts loose at 45 seconds in for his first showcase, backed momentarily by Devonia Williams on piano as the one supporting instrument before the other horns come roaring back. Otis meanwhile is riding the cymbals like a man overdosing on Ritalin after also injecting caffeine directly into his veins.

Though in a technical sense he wasn’t yet “Big Jay” McNeely, recording this as he was in the process of being signed as a solo act to Savoy Records where he would undergo a slight name change (from Cecil), but Johnny Otis knew what he had here – name musician or not – and as a result he featured McNeely to the fullest extent. In fact a few months later when tomorrow’s flip-side Happy New Year Baby was removed in favor of another more timely themed song, Excelsior Records changed the label of THIS, the remaining side, to highlight the now-famous tenor sax star in an attempt to lure in even more listeners.

But whether you knew of his reputation before putting this on the record player or not, you’d surely be singing his praises once it got spinning.

Nothing here is taken at safe speeds or to carefully build up to a fevered pitch. Instead they start off in overdrive and somehow take it even further once they’re underway. McNeely’s first solo, which for most musicians would be deemed far too frantic, seems to be almost mild compared to the rest of the performance.

The entire production veers perilously close to the edge of sanity. If it weren’t so expertly done you’d be forgiven if you thought it was actually a farce designed to mock the type of manic displays that rock was increasingly giving itself over to. But no, this is the real deal played with the sole intent of driving the squares to madness and the intended audience to orgasm.

It amazingly achieves both.

Time To Wind Down
As has been stated before, rock music of this nature is a communal exercise and in a modern sterile environment (such as listening while seated in a quiet room, perhaps reading an informative, exceedingly well-written review of such a record) the sound blaring from the speakers probably will be TOO frenzied to fully appreciate.

Barrelhouse Stomp is a record that demands a packed house of drunken degenerates just to match the excitement it creates. Anything short of that and it’s bound to be viewed as over-the-top and potentially dangerous to those with weak hearts. It’s taken at such a full-throttle intensity that it seems to be more caricature than a legitimate performance.

But instead of giving in to your drab modern environs and letting that dictate your response, put yourself instead in the Barrelhouse Club in December, 1948 on a Saturday night. There’s sawdust on the floors, hundreds of young good-looking men and women itching to be free (of their worries, of their burdens, of their senses!), all congregating in the one place that provides them an oasis from trouble in the outside world.

A place created for THEIR needs and to indulge in THEIR passions, which at this moment includes this type of music – untainted by the need to conform to society’s more proper standards. The one night of the week they can be themselves and cut loose without any concern as to whom they might offend or outrage in the process. Where they too can celebrate life in its most visceral state.

In that environment Barrelhouse Stomp will send you over the moon.

Enjoy it while it lasts though for as we discussed in depth in our last review for fellow Southern Cal based rocker, Amos Milburn’s A&M Blues, in only a few years the notoriously racist cops in Los Angeles would crack down on this type of joint, harassing, threatening, beating and terrorizing those who frequented clubs of this kind, determined as always to drive black citizens who were exhibiting “too much freedom” out of the area and in the process to put them back “in their place” so as not to upset the surrounding white community.

Maybe that’s why Otis looked back on this short-lived era so fondly, before it all came to an ignominious end. This period we’re in now was that brief shining moment where cultural freedom seemed less a fantasy and ever more a reality.


It was also the moment when the music itself was just starting to take hold, particularly this brand of Los Angeles rock ‘n’ roll that he oversaw, and it too seemed free of pre-conceived expectations… from audiences, record labels or even the artists themselves.

Soon it would undergo the inevitable changes brought about by its own commercial success, as the unexpected popularity of it on record would make those who issued these records ever more conservative, trying to ensure they didn’t alienate any potential listeners by making it too inaccessible, often too blind to realize that the unfiltered brand of music that kicked it off before anyone knew an audience for this existed was what had made it so enticing to begin with and the watering down of its formula would only dilute the excitement that the audience initially sought from sounds such as this.

As always the past and future pull at each other with the present caught precariously between them, never quite certain as to just how long it will last.

But now imagine you heard Barrelhouse Stomp at that precise moment in late 1948, poised between those two realities, where there was still a place you could go to be amongst others in the same state of mind that you inhabit, to become enveloped in a world yet to incite the outrage of an uptight society determined to bring it all crashing down.

As the music permeates your soul you think to yourself that maybe Big Jay McNeely’s saxophone has even enough power to hold off that eventuality for a little bit longer.


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