SAVOY 743; MAY 1950



When you have an artist who has presided over more hits in the first half of the year as the entire rest of your company’s stable combined, yet who is a non-singing bandleader with a whole host of different vocalists who can all get releases with their now-famous names as the primary artist, what are you to do when it comes to publicizing the bandleader who made it all possible?

Well that’s what instrumentals are for, aren’t they? For here, though he’s not playing on this either, merely writing, arranging and producing it, Johnny Otis gets to keep his name in the spotlight on a record that wouldn’t be likely to become a hit, but was in essence a reward for all the hits he’d overseen.


A Stop In The Gloaming
Don’t think for a minute that such an arrangement was merely a form of artistic gratis, a way to keep Otis content now that the singers he groomed were becoming bigger names than him and the public acknowledgement for his role was being reduced to merely getting secondary credit on those hit records.

Remember that it had long been the band itself, made up of some of the finest musicians on their respective instruments in all of rock, which had been the initial draw for Savoy Records when signing them last December, and that they’d had a number of good-selling instrumentals dating back a couple of years by now.

So with that in mind the label had two choices with these songs… either use them as B-sides to a vocal hit, thereby splitting the artist credit and potentially creating some confusion in the process (although allowing them to keep more vocal cuts to serve as A-sides down the road)… or they could put out these instrumentals on the same single under Otis’s name, probably missing out on scoring any hits with them, but keeping their releases a little more sensible.

But like all records, instrumental or not, the primary assessment as to their worth – at least to the artist and label – still comes down to how much action it stirs and records like Blues Nocturne didn’t have enough flash to be the kind of the thing that you’d drop a nickel into the jukebox to hear every day. As a result this was a record that was bound to be undervalued at the time and overlooked in the long run no matter how good it may be.


Creeping Along
With so many hot shots in the band the question with these records was just which instrument was Otis going to focus on? Would it be a showcase for only one artist or an attempt to highlight the cohesiveness and precision of the entire ensemble?

You couldn’t go wrong choosing either option really, but with Blues Nocturne he does both, using it as a way to allow both the guitar and sax to shine individually, but it does so by letting the entire band frame it in a way that speaks well of their collective brilliance.

Pete “Guitar” Lewis is the first beneficiary of this approach as he gets the most attention thrown his way as the record establishes the slinky mood behind his slow but lethal single string attack.

After a jittery opening that gets you on the edge of your seat Lewis slides into the background to let the horns try and put you in a trance while he adds sharp replies to their lines, his tone just past the forty second mark as he winds down being particularly entrancing, almost sounding as if it were the musical distillation of blown glass.

Then with the mood and melody having been properly established by the horn section, Lewis steps into the forefront to stretch out and give this some added character. He starts out practically creeping along a wall, like a cat burglar wielding a guitar rather than a crow bar or rope.

He steps things up before long but never gets carried away, keeping things restrained enough to maintain the tension he’s created, his lines flickering like individual flames rather creating an all-out inferno. That’s arguably a more effective way to highlight him because it draws you in using subtlety rather than seizing your attention with explosiveness, but it also explains why this record was never going to be his personal showcase, but rather a group effort in which he simply plays a vital part.

Somewhere In The Dark Of Night
Throughout Lewis’s extended atmospheric run, the horns receded into the scenery, their presence remaining valuable in keeping the mood taut but never drawing attention to themselves in the process.

That changes in the second half as the saxophone takes the reins and transforms the song into something a lot more sensuous, yet which comes across as a natural progression from the edgier first half thanks to the deft arranging skills that made sure there was always that bed of horns in the background to ease the transition.

When your saxophonists include the McNeely brothers, Big Jay on tenor and Bob on baritone, you know Blues Nocturne is in good hands. Jay caresses the melody as if it were a woman’s hair, drawing out the melodic lines in a way that has you leaning forward in anticipation to see how it will resolve itself.

Floyd Turnham on alto eases in as the song comes into the final turn, maybe a little TOO brassy now, sending it back in years more than we’d prefer, but as Lewis and Bob McNeely reassert themselves it acts as enough of a counterweight to keep things on an even keel.

If you think it’s hardly the sound of a typical hit rock instrumental you’re probably right, as the entire vibe this gives off sounds less like a commercial single and more like an atmospheric soundtrack to a black and white big screen melodrama. Good stuff, but definitely made for when the lights go out at the party and the heavy petting begins… but then again, who among you would complain about such a thing?


Lights Out
We’ve known for awhile that when it came to creating diverse fully realized musical tracks that few, if any, in rock had a leg-up on Johnny Otis, so there’s nothing altogether surprising about the results of this record.

That being said however it’s also a record that was somewhat atypical for the very market it was targeting meaning that, despite having his name adorning the label, it was bound to be passed over.

Yet while its mainstream appeal was somewhat limited, Blues Nocturne provided a rewarding listening experience to those who cared to indulge in such moody sound palettes as this. It also gave further evidence that rock could be more sophisticated and ambitious than the hedonistic party anthems and off-color musical skits that were drawing all of the attention would otherwise suggest.

In a year when Otis was the most celebrated name in rock it’s probably only fair that he have a couple of underappreciated gems to balance the scales a little and make diving into his deeper catalog far more rewarding than if you were to stick to only the biggest smash hits. All things considered this makes for a good place to start that kind of treasure hunt.


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