MERCURY 8273; MARCH 1952



Nineteen Fifty had been a particularly momentous year in rock ‘n’ roll as we saw the arrival of a number of major artists, from Fats Domino and Professor Longhair to Sylvia Vanderpool and The Dominoes, as well as the breakthrough of many others such as Ruth Brown and Percy Mayfield, but towering over them all during those twelve months was Johnny Otis and a deep roster of singers and sidemen under his command.

It’d be hard to overstate the commercial dominance of Otis’s many projects. Nine rock singles topped the charts during the calendar year and he was responsible for a third of them. In addition seven other songs of his made the Top Ten that year as he propelled two vocalists, Little Esther and Mel Walker, to stardom in the process.

Everything that could go right for him did so that year, but in the 14 months since very little has gone right and the one to blame for this downturn is none other than Johnny Otis himself.


A Wrong Turn
We’re not revealing anything new by saying that Johnny Otis’s stardom as an artist was precarious to begin with… not that he wasn’t immensely talented as a bandleader, songwriter and even instrumentalist… but because he was a reluctant singer at best with just one lead to his name this far – though All Nite Long was a well-deserved hit – it meant that he was reliant on other singers to capture the public’s attention.

He’d had no trouble doing this throughout 1950, first with The Robins, whose biggest hit with him, If It’s So Baby, actually landed in the final days of 1949, and then with Little Esther and Mel Walker, either separately or singing together.

But Otis’s attempts to rip off The Robins of a few measly bucks cost him the vocal group just as that style was about to break open and alter the course of rock ‘n’ roll in the years to come and he was never able to adequately replace them.

Then when Esther’s contract with Savoy Records was declared null and void because she was underage it allowed her to go elsewhere and Otis lost his biggest star, though he continued to back her on the sly. Walker continued to score hits for awhile, but like Esther he had become hooked on drugs and the commercial momentum of Otis’s dwindling contingent was clearly dying.

But while all of this was tough to overcome, the real cause of his sinking fortunes was his own short-sighted greed.

When Esther left for Federal Records at the end of 1950, Johnny made a verbal agreement with the company’s Ralph Bass, the man who had signed him to Savoy in the first place, that he’d go with him as soon as he contract was up at the end of 1951. Had he done so it would’ve paired him with someone who understood rock ‘n’ roll on a label with deep ties to that market, in addition to allowing him to work above board with Little Esther again.

The deal was set… he even found in The Royals an immensely talented vocal group to work with, as he took them to Federal where they signed a contract in November 1951 in preparation for his arrival a month later.

But then Otis got a better deal from a bigger company, Mercury, a label that knew little about rock – and less about Otis, other than his chart history – and he went with them instead. Yet he had no singers, no vocal group, no sympathetic A&R men for a company with no connections with key distributors in the rock field.

Which means we’re left with Goomp Blues, a title that surely is indicative of the unintelligible mess he put himself into for a few extra dollars that wound up costing him far more in the long run.

The lesson being, while the added dollars feel good in your pocket for a moment, always go where you have a chance to thrive and increase your long term value in the process.


Dead End
Indicative of the trouble he was in, both sides of this, his second Mercury single, were instrumentals.

That this side is pretty good is beside the point, because instrumentals, no matter how good, had little chance of becoming a hit in 1952 compared to vocal records and to double up on them positioned Otis as nothing more than an afterthought in the market.

Mercury Records had to already be regretting this signing, but that’s what they get for not having any clue that Otis’s popularity had been due to a diverse cast of characters that were not with him anymore, or were in diminished capacity due to outside issues.

But while that’s the dire big picture look at Otis’s sinking career, we still need to take Goomp Blues for what it is, which is an interesting rocking instrumental featuring a mixture of guitar and horns which keeps it rolling along at a satisfying clip.

Pete Lewis’s guitar ostensibly is the lead instrument here with its medium tempo single string boogie that opens and closes the record nicely. In between he speeds things up slightly, deviates from the strict boogie progression and shows off his improvisational flair nicely.

If that were the jist of the record however it’d be pretty one dimensional and luckily we have the horns to add their own flavors to the mix. In a good bit of arranging on Otis’s part they start off slow, barely heard in the background but growing in prominence as Lewis plays until finally they’re allowed to jump into the forefront, just for a brief moment as the none other than the great Ben Webster takes a quick run that gets responded to by Otis’s own vibes and just as quickly they hand back to Lewis.

This happens again a little later on with more emphasis but it’s all just a prelude for an extended solo by Webster just before the midway point which is suitably grungy while the brass section bolsters him with succinct bursts of their own. Even when Otis gets a mini-solo of his own the baritone emerges from the background to take over in short order, all of which leads back into that Lewis boogie line on guitar before the horns bring it to a suitable close.

It’s well-written, smartly arranged and nicely played with equal parts precision and controlled passion… and it’s largely forgettable despite all that.

This is just reality. Instrumentals like this are background music – IMPORTANT background music, for no party worth its name can be without this kind of thing – but it’s not hit record material, not in 1952, even though it fits seamlessly into the mosaic of sounds dominating rock for the year.

No Way Out
It might seem strange to spend most of the review criticizing the man responsible for a record that is well above average aesthetically, but facts are facts. Johnny Otis needed to right the ship commercially to keep his “brand” in demand and everything he was doing only ensured the opposite result.

Goomp Blues would make for an excellent B-side to a vocal rave-up by a brash singer, but when he had Linda Hopkins in his grasp last year as a replacement for Little Esther he failed to secure her services.

It’d also go well with a sublime vocal group harmony song on the other side but The Royals were now ensconced at Federal Records which is where Otis should’ve been, taking advantage of their abilities to diversify his sounds.

While you could also conceivably pair this song nicely with a more downcast Mel Walker side, we have to remind you that Mel’s contract with Savoy still had a little ways to go though at least he’d eventually join his mentor at Mercury later in the year.

Left to command all of the attention on its own, this fell by the wayside despite its quality.

Now you might say that Otis was smart to look out for himself in terms of getting the best contract. You’ll notice he established his own publishing company – J.O. Music – to get his rightful income from the songs he wrote, but that obviously wasn’t contingent on his being with Mercury and by signing with them he cut himself off from the support system he needed to give him the hits needed to keep him earning top dollar as a headlining star.

Though he’d manage to contribute to rock’s story behind the scenes in important ways, it’d be a long time before he fully recovered his stature with the general public.


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