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For the second time in three years the first review of a New Year goes to Johnny Otis, but a lot has changed over the past twenty four months.

Rock ‘n’ roll entered the Nineteen Fifties as the hottest style of music in Black America but was virtually unknown elsewhere and was deemed largely inconsequential by the major record labels of the day.

Since then rock’s commercial potency has only grown larger and major labels have been cherry picking some of these records seeking potential songs for their pop artists to cover and begun to address their own lack of investment in this field by starting up subsidiary labels to handle their more concerted attempts to break into the rock market with artists of their own.

But maybe the biggest sign that they were starting to take this upstart brand of music seriously was the fact that one them, Mercury Records, had just convinced Johnny Otis of all people to sign with them.


Waited Two Years For The Eggs To Begin
For the past two years on Savoy Records, bandleader Johnny Otis was the most commercially successful figure in all of rock, hands down.

Now granted he did have one advantage few of his peers had, which is that while his name appeared on all of the records, he was not the featured performer on most of them. In 1950 the main draw on his singles was teenage vocalist Little Esther and mid-way through that year she was joined by Mel Walker who had sizable hits of his own in addition to teaming with Esther on some killer duets.

By 1951 however Esther was gone, legally extricating herself from her Savoy contract taking advantage of the fact she was underage and couldn’t be held to it, and moving to Federal Records where, despite still being surreptitiously backed by Otis, the hits dried up.

No matter, Walker was still around to wrack up more chart entries with Johnny for Savoy in 1951 and there were other vocalists in and out of the band who issued some good records in their own right. Plus Johnny himself took his first lead vocal – and got a hit out of it – last summer.

The plan all along had been for him to leave Savoy and join Esther at Federal as soon as he was able to in order to escape Herman Lubinsky who never fulfilled his promise for higher royalty rates. But a funny thing happened along the way… Mercury came along and offered even more and whether it was the allure of a major company, or just the belief they’d provide more accurate sales figures and royalty payments, it caused Otis to go back on his word with Federal’s Ralph Bass and sign with them instead.

Ahh, but here’s the problem… one of many in fact… Walker was still bound to Savoy, since he signed with them a few months later than Otis, and Esther of course was stuck at Federal. That meant to get a record out right away, Johnny would have to clear the cobwebs from his throat and sing Oopy Doo himself, a song whose title alone should tell you that Mercury was going to regret this high profile dive into rock ‘n’ roll before the ink dried on the contract.

If You Don’t Know What To Say Take My Advice
Though he would wind up singing a lot more on record as time went on Johnny Otis never really thought of himself as a singer and downplayed his abilities in that area.

While it’s true that he wasn’t on par with those he worked with, he definitely wasn’t without talent in this area. He could hold a tune fine, always in key and with a good sense of rhythm, his tone was warm and rich and though possessing rather limited range and never mastering the more impressive techniques to add color to his work, he was actually pretty good when he stuck to the basics.

He’d have to be as the times they were a changin’, not just because of the defections already alluded to, but also because with rock’s growing popularity as a whole it was more profitable for a company to promote the singer than the band and so while Otis would continue to back a wide array of top names in the studio over the next few years they were not formally attached to his outfit.

As a result if he wanted to capitalize on the still potent commercial pull of his name, he’d have to step out front and take the microphone himself at times.

Because of his limited confidence at this point however, he did what a lot of self-conscious singers do, which is to cut down on the amount of words he was being forced to croon. Oopy Doo is a nonsensical title fit for a nonsensical story with a nonsensical chorus made up of that nonsensical title which alleviates him of much of his vocal responsibilities.

Oh he still sings, but because the song doesn’t mean anything, nor does the main hook even consist of actual words, it’s somehow less threatening for him to do. Some things never change when it comes to covering up for this shortcoming, or have you never heard a little kid caught singing by older relatives and seen how quickly they switch to gibberish to take the onus off their vocals.

The rest of the song is mostly a series of floating verses from black culture that Johnny learned as a kid and while they do have some charm they also don’t add up to a story. He doesn’t sound bad singing them, but unfortunately nobody told him and so rather than craft an actual song he serves up a throwaway performance for his major label debut which could hardly have made the executives there very pleased.

Papa Bought A Rooster, Thought It Was A Hen
But wait a minute… this was Mercury Records, a company with little experience in rock ‘n’ roll (save for one great multi-artist session out of New Orleans that they had nothing much to do with in the studio), so it’s not as if they were even aware of what components went into a good rock song.

That’s clearly something that might work to Otis’s advantage since he still had a band that could provide the musical goods to offset a weak theme and childish lyrics and if he simply went all-out in an effort to deliver something hair-raising and raucous, how could they complain?

Unfortunately now it was HIS turn to be guilty of not understanding his role at the company, surely thinking that they’d be more amenable to something with a little bit more class than greasy rock ‘n’ roll and as a result Otis confines the elements that made for a solid rocker to the pounding back-beat provided by the drummer behind the vocals and the sax solo which does get some mileage out of the gruff tone and bobbing and weaving pattern being laid down.

The rest of Oopy Doo however has loftier aims, starting with an overstuffed horn section jostling for position so they can be seen on the bandstand in the opening, before repeating this calamitous racket when charging into the break, soon ceding the spotlight to Otis’s vibes which provide a much needed respite, but not before yet another reprise of the horn clatter which serves as a segue to the saxophone, though even there they can’t step aside completely and it becomes like two radio stations interfering with each other’s signal.

The ending is a little more subdued, but while well-arranged and nicely played there’s too much gloss and not enough grit, which I suppose is inevitable with so many trumpets and trombones everywhere you look.

Who knows, maybe this was what Mercury would’ve preferred if they’d had their druthers, but rock fans were skeptical of this sort of thing and with Otis’s star fading steadily over the past year a move to this label to release this kind of compromised record wasn’t going to get him back on top.


That’s All You Gotta Do!
Let’s start off the new year being as fair as possible by placing the blame for this obvious misfire on both parties equally.

Mercury Records were trying to jump onto a style they had no real awareness of and thus had no quality control in place to guide their new signee into the kind of music they wanted from him… presuming they wanted him to actually give them potential rock hits, not quasi-novelties like Oopy Doo.

Johnny Otis clearly wasn’t fully prepared to kick off this stage of his career at Mercury because he was short one qualified vocalist and one competent song, not to mention perhaps thinking this was the kind of place that would allow him to revert back to his jazzier inclinations.

Considering the flip side was a mellow jazz version of Stardust featuring none other than the legendary Ben Webster on sax, maybe this was the case after all.

Whatever the reason though, the result is that rather than get off to a good start upon landing at a major, like Ivory Joe Hunter had two years ago with MGM after saving up his best songs for them and scoring two chart toppers in the first few months, Otis was scrambling to come up with something even moderately acceptable.

This isn’t awful, but it’s not what the label or the audience wanted and chances are if he could’ve avoided singing, it wasn’t what Johnny Otis wanted to do either.


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