Though on the surface the Mid-Century American music scene seemed to be thriving – Billboard magazine this very month reported that record sales boomed in 1950 and had the figures to back it up – a closer look at the kinds of records that were selling painted less of a rosy picture.

In the late 30’s and early 40’s the big band sound was the rage, then during the war years it was crooners, followed after the war by name singers fronting bigger productions. But as the Fifties dawned things were more scattershot stylistically as the industry was clearly looking for trends… they began covering country tunes, folk songs, had a huge hit with a zither instrumental of all things and were starting to believe the hot sound of the future might be found in… the mambo?

Though rock acts were usually above shamelessly pursuing fads, Johnny Otis hopped on board this one, if only for a B-side.


Five’ll Get You One
Though it’s often referred to as a “mambo craze” that lasted almost a full decade – roughly 1950-1958 with a peak popularity in 54/55 – the usual placeholders for showcasing the popularity of a style of music, hit singles, don’t tell half the story of the mambo.

It was conceived by a pair of Cuban bandleading brothers in the late 1930’s – Orestes López and Israel “Cachao” Lopez and a little over than a decade later it was popularized internationally by fellow Cuban bandleader by Pérez Prado who would become its leading exponent over the years.

The mambo was different enough to be exotic to virgin American ears, yet familiar enough with the big band touches Prado added to it, to be more easily accepted. It was one of those sounds the music industry was desperately hoping would catch on and give them a new style to sell but initially it primarily was popular as a live act, fitting perfectly into the last days of the nightclub era because it was made for dancing.

Prado did indeed have some big hits later on though when the mambo had reached its widest audience in the mid-1950’s, including two chart toppers in ’55 and ’58, but his breakthrough record from 1950 Mambo No. 5 never actually made the charts.

That didn’t mean musicians didn’t pick up on it though and one of the unlikely beneficiaries was Johnny Otis who cut Mambo Boogie which is… kind of what you’d expect out of him if he was going to delve into it. A basic mambo rhythm with all of the idiosyncratic touches – the shouts in particular – but played with rock ‘n’ roll instruments and attitude.

Whether that was a good thing for listeners, for Otis or for the mambo itself, wasn’t clear but for once it showed that mainstream pop musicians weren’t the only ones looking to hop on a trend in rather shallow fashion in the hopes of stirring some additional interest in their records… though coming off the year he’d just had as the biggest selling rock act in a single year to date Johnny hardly needed the commercial boost.


A New Kind Of Mambo
Any excuse you have for letting Johnny Otis’s band play a tight instrumental, regardless of where its inspiration came from, was a good thing. These guys – and lady – could flat out jam and though this may not be their usual song structure it’s really not that far removed from what we’ve heard at times in the past utilizing overlapping rhythms, riffing horns, a few solos all while digging a deep groove.

The basic stop/start rhythm comes straight from the first chapter of Mambo 101 -and no, that’s not another numbered song by Prado – and so by using this simple outline and adapting it to their own rock-based instruments you were bound to get something modestly interesting if nothing else.

But Mambo Boogie lets those instruments do more than just play what’s expected in that formula, it gives them space to improvise and if as a result that means this moves further away from mambo… well, that’s why they added the word “boogie” to the end because they can just say the rest falls under that description.

Which it kinda does too, at least Devonia Williams’s piano is boogieing nicely in the first section and after the more traditional turnaround Pete Lewis jumps in with his guitar which is playing something not heard in many dance halls where the mambo was prevalent, unless there were a few adventurish souls doing it in the tobacco barns down South that frequently doubled as a dance hall.

The sax solo that follows, either James Von Streeter or Lorenzo Holden, is pretty basic but quite melodic even if all it’s doing, like the other breaks before it, is allowing the main performance by the rhythm section to get a breather so it will remain fresher sounding when it returns for the next go-round.

That’s where this record stands out, the mambo rhythms themselves, particularly the quirky drumming which is the centerpiece of the song. The session information says it’s Leard Bell – and it very well may be – but if so it reveals that Otis’s comments down the road about Bell’s limited technique may have been slightly overstated. But if it was true that he was more adept at maintaining a strict beat as opposed to trying anything more complex then maybe he sat this one out and Johnny himself slid back behind the kit like the old days.

Whoever is responsible though it definitely holds your attention and while the song never builds to a frantic climax like so many of their instrumentals have in the past, mambos in general tended to ride with one satisfying wave the whole way through, apparently whether a boogie was amended to it or not.


A New Dance Sensation
For what was surely something of a throwaway during a flurry of sessions at the start of the year it’s a little strange that having decided to designate it the B-side Savoy wound up promoting this more than the much more appropriate vocal side by Mel Walker, the startlingly deep Gee Baby.

Even when that side took off across the country a month or two down the road, they didn’t hurry out to push that one instead, so somebody in the company (or who had the ear of someone in the company) must’ve felt strongly about Mambo Boogie. You can certainly see why, it’s a good performance and a unique one besides.

Then again, while Otis and company were ensconced on the West Coast the record company was not too far from New York City where the mambo craze was strongest and so that might’ve had something to do with it as well.

Though this has remained fairly well regarded in the years since, the real joy from it aside from just another chance to hear the band cutting loose, is more contextual in nature as in a few years time the mambo meets rock fad will be left almost exclusively to vocal records and so before it reached a saturation point, this is what that initial get together produced.

Neither side of that bargain, mambo or rock, gets shortchanged here and while partisan fans of one or the other may raise an eyebrow at having the share the floor, Otis’s group shows they can theoretically work well in tandem even if in the long run this melding of two styles wasn’t going to get anybody very far.

Of course the trend with huge commercial potential the mainstream industry refused to see all along wasn’t the mambo, but full-fledged rock ‘n’ roll itself… ripe and ready for the picking. Who knows, maybe if the music community looked right under their noses they might’ve sped up the inevitable rock takeover that soon followed and got to share those rewards rather than spend the next decade in a futile effort to fight it off by trying to make things like the mambo viable for the masses.


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