SAVOY 743; MAY 1950



The distance between Los Angeles, California, where Johnny Otis and his stellar band resided, and New Orleans is about 1,900 miles. In case you were also wondering it’s almost 1,300 miles from Newark, New Jersey, where Savoy Records was located, to The Crescent City.

Yet as distant as those two locales were to the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, that didn’t stop them from disingenuously trying to latch on to the musical gumbo others were cooking up in the bayou in an attempt to draw in a few more listeners aroused by the sights, the smells and especially sounds that were coming out of Louisiana in 1950.


All Points West
Okay, to be fair it’s not exactly like Johnny Otis set out to deceive anybody with this record and chances are it wasn’t even him who named it in the first place. More likely Ralph Bass, Savoy’s West Coast A&R man, was the one who thought up the title after it had already been cut and since it was an instrumental it really didn’t matter what it was called provided the name was intriguing enough to elicit some spins on its own.

Whatever the reasoning behind it however, two things are pretty clear about this song right away. The first is that the city itself had already established enough of a reputation as rock’s ground zero to make it an appealing designation to slap on a record. After all, Los Angeles was a bigger city and with Otis’s reputation already well established there you’d think naming it after The City Of Angels would be the more appropriate move to make, so their going with Nola instead has some significance, however minor it might seem today.

The second obvious conclusion you get from listening to New Orleans Shuffle is as good as Johnny Otis’s band may have been they were by no means well versed in the dominant New Orleans brand of rock if that is indeed what they were going for in this song.

But as we said, they probably weren’t trying to replicate the sounds that defined that part of the country and so, taken on its own with no inferences to be drawn by the inappropriate title, this is something that is far more representative of Otis’s attempts to show how ahead of its time his band was now than any vague connection it had with somewhere that was known for having zestier spices thrown into their musical pot.


Six Strings… Reeds And Brass On The Side
The first sign this is as far away from New Orleans as the map indicates is the absence of horns at the forefront of the arrangement. Instead we get Pete Lewis’s guitar as the primary instrument and while a few guitarists from that neck of the woods – Jack Scott, Ernest McLean, Edgar Blanchard – had made names for themselves with their axe-work thus far, none had really defined an entire record the way Lewis attempts to do here.

After some brief, but futuristic, horn blasts which get interspersed with Devonia Williams’ piano in the opening Lewis jumps in with a biting tone that gets progressively more intense as it goes on, particularly after another escalation of the horns that is met with Lewis’s harsh replies.

Before we get into the meat of the song that follows however, let’s circle back to that intro for a second, which sounds exactly like something The Memphis Horns… or maybe James Brown… would’ve come up with in 1965! It’s super quick, just four blasts, taken two at a time, before they move on from that approach. Although you can’t claim that something entirely new was invented in the process, it is justifiable to say that this segment of New Orleans Shuffle was not in any way a typical 1950 approach, either in terms of how they’re framed or how they’re played, and though it only lasts a few seconds before returning to a more era-appropriate construction, for that brief moment they’re giving you a sneak peak at the sounds of tomorrow.

Back in the present the horns get down to the basics, specifically Walter Henry’s baritone sax which gets a rare moment in the spotlight in a slow downward spiral before Big Jay McNeely wrests control with his tenor and rises back to the surface, the pace quickening and the melody becoming more buoyant.

But they’re merely the interlude because before long Lewis returns for an encore, playing sparse brief lines in between the gently riffing horns before repeatedly sticking your fingers in the electric socket to jolt you with sadistic pleasure.

Apparently that’s what you get for not being able to properly read a map or use a compass.


Through The Looking Glass
As records go, this isn’t something you’re likely to be able to easily immerse yourself in, regardless of whether you use music to merely set an appropriate mood for pursuing other activities, or if you focus intently on that music as a way to lose yourself in some cathartic exercise like dancing or just bobbing your head along in time to the rhythm.

No, it’s safe to say that New Orleans Shuffle is best viewed from a distance, an intriguing mixture of sounds that create definite impressions that are a little too raw and unwieldy for communal participation.

There’s nothing particularly threatening about it, but it’s got enough of an edge to it to recommend taking a step back and observing it clinically as opposed to expecting the song to envelop your senses in an inviting and reassuring manner.

As for the geographical DNA that might be uncovered here, there’s not any signs that these musicians ever stepped foot in New Orleans, but then again there’s hardly much Los Angeles musical climate on their radar either. It’s a song that flows together well while seemingly being drawn from no specific region… and with its time machine opening you might not want to ask where any of it came from if you don’t want to upset the space time continuum.

Maybe the best way to approach this is to almost forget the musical side of the equation and just use it to put the rock marketplace into perspective as the city which adorns the title manages to hold sway over artists and labels about as far away as could be within the continental United States.

It may not be a musical tip of the hat to The Crescent City, but as a sign of general respect to the home of rock ‘n’ roll it’ll do alright.


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