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MODERN 20-715; NOVEMBER, 1949



Even though Johnny Otis, somewhat incredibly, had not yet managed to score any national hits despite releasing a few of the most vibrant, exciting and ahead of their times records thus far in rock, that didn’t mean he wasn’t highly thought of in the music industry already, especially in the fertile Los Angeles record business where a host of small independent local labels were vying for relevance in this relatively new style.

Otis had been ensconced at one of the more venerable of those labels, Excelsior run by the great songwriter Otis Rene, since he signed his first contract back in 1945 as a bandleader. But as that company was beginning to falter in what would soon be a fairly rapid downward death spiral, it left the field open for the other record labels in town to grab up an artist with arguably more potential to succeed than anyone on the scene.

Not only did Otis run a first rate band full of highly acclaimed musicians on virtually every instrument, but he wrote and arranged the majority of their material and essentially was already acting as a studio producer for their sessions. If that wasn’t enough he also had the means with which to promote those records thanks to his hot nightspot in Watts, The Barrelhouse Club, which attracted throngs of insatiable music fans night after night to see them perform.

So when Modern Records inked Otis to a contract for a typical four song session in the fall of 1949 they probably expected something cutting edge which would position the company in the forefront of the local music scene, if not give them a greater presence in the emerging national scene for rock.

Imagine their surprise when Johnny served up something that wasn’t ahead of the curve but rather noticeably behind the times.

Go figure!


Looking Back To Thursday From A Friday Night
For someone who would go down in history as one of the founding father’s of rock ‘n’ roll and who would preside over more notable careers in one form or fashion than virtually any other artist thanks to his work as a talent scout – discovering Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, Little Willie John, Etta James, Big Jay McNeely, The Robins and Little Esther (who made her debut on the flip side of this, I Gotta Guy) – and as a producer which found him overseeing work by such diverse figures as Johnny Ace, Big Mama Thornton, Little Richard, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Arthur Lee Maye and Little Julian Herrera, the fact of the matter is Johnny Otis’s musical heart may have beaten strongest for the very styles he was in the process of displacing.

This is hardly unusual of course. Most people have an affinity for the music which first inspired them when growing up and for Otis, and many others of his generation, it had been the jazz bands of Count Basie and Jimmie Lunceford. So Johnny mastered the drums and had aspirations to be the next Philly Jo Jones but by the time he was making the rounds in his early days as a professional he found that newer sounds were prevailing, a slimmed down band with more rhythmic thrust to make up for the comparative lack of instruments.

Had he broken through on record with his own band at this time it’s almost certain he’d have done so with a similar approach that others like Louis Jordan, Roy Milton and Joe Liggins were excelling with, but while Otis was certainly good enough to do so as evidenced by him leading the band at the phenomenally successful Club Alabam, his own recording opportunities at the time were limited to sidework – albeit on a few notable records – by the likes of Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young.

When did get the chance to cut some sides as a leader in 1945 he came prepared with impressive charts and even had the great singer Jimmy Rushing in tow to deliver vocals for him, yet it was the last minute throwaway Harlem Nocturne with a moody sinister arrangement that proved to be the locally popular hit because it appealed to a younger audience in tune with the changing scene.

By the time Otis was back in a studio three years later rock ‘n’ roll had been born and that was where the future lay. He could still dream about playing in a successful swing band but if he wanted to be more than an outdated afterthought he’d have no choice but to look elsewhere for musical sustenance. His entrepreneurial bent had led him to start The Barrelhouse Club which ensured he’d have a youthful nightly audience to see what worked and what didn’t and tailor his music for their tastes, while his eye for talent – aided by the amateur talent shows the club held each week – landed him a cadre of younger musicians who were tapped in to the newest sounds, something reflected in his best sides over the past year for Excelsior.

But even while he was charting new territory with some of those records, like the exhilarating Midnight At The Barrelhouse, with its ferocious Pete Lewis guitar leads, or the honking sax of Big Jay McNeely that was prominently featured on Barrelhouse Stomp, Otis still tried reaching further back into the past in a fruitless attempt to keep the older styles he adored alive.

Maybe he thought he’d be able to tie them in with the more recent rock developments and thereby bring those bygone sounds to another generation just coming of age, but it was a futile attempt. The present doesn’t slow down to let the past catch up and future won’t delay its arrival just so the past isn’t completely forgotten.

Johnny Otis it seemed was still learning those rules.


A Mood A Minute
If ever there was a record that would qualify as musical gumbo – a little bit of this, a little bit of that – it was surely Thursday Night Blues, a song which can’t quite make up its mind what style it is, let alone which year it belongs to.

There are elements of three distinct styles and eras at play here and the fact that Otis gets them to somehow transcend each specific niche and work as well together as he does is a testament to his arranging skills, but even though he manages to prevent them from clashing outright it still doesn’t mean that it’s an altogether successful merger.

The song is a moody instrumental, the kind of late night atmospheric piece that seems tailor made for a black and white movie set in skid row or at a foggy waterfront dive where the bouncer doesn’t get a minutes rest with all of the head-breaking he’s forced to deliver.

The centerpiece of the arrangement is Pete “Guitar” Lewis who for the majority of the proceedings sticks with a T-Bone Walker-like blues riff – slow and sleepy on the surface, but like a poisonous snake slithering through the tall grass it’s got a quiet menace to it that imbues the record with the edginess it needs to keep you focused on it… maybe out of fear that if you get distracted and look away for an instance it will strike and cripple you with its bite.

So that’s the blues debt the the title obliquely refers to, but there’s also a jazz vein running through the record as well thanks to the trumpets patiently riffing in between the cracks.

We’re often very critical of trumpets around here, not because they aren’t capable of making excellent music but because for the most part rock artists haven’t figured out how to use them to make excellent music FOR rock records.

Their heyday was in jazz and it’s the jazz mentality they clung to long after other horns, like the sax, had distanced themselves from the earlier approaches and forged new paths to arrive at a much different, more uninhibited, land to stake their claim. By contrast the trumpet has stuck to mostly the same well trod paths that left them all too obvious as a holdover from another time and place.

Part of this is the more limited tone that a trumpet has to work with, but then again shouldn’t musicians be able to ascertain this inherent flaw and either radically re-think its usage, or discard it altogether in favor of something more suitable? When they don’t see the writing on the wall it becomes pretty hard to cut them any slack for their allegiance to a sound that no longer delivers much bang for its buck.

Here Otis manages to sidestep that dilemma by keeping them within very narrow confines so they don’t risk overwhelming the rest of the musicians with their higher shrill tones. They’re playing a purposefully monotonous circular pattern in the lower end of their range, acting as sort of a faint warning that fits in with the overall motif of veiled danger that the guitar has already established. They still may not be the sound we like to hear, being as they conjure up a higher class bandstand in a jazz nightclub, but they’re at least moderately appropriate in what they’re playing here which is more than we can say for most songs in rock they’ve appeared on by this stage.

Throwback Thursday
Where does that leave us?

The guitar certainly stands as the sound of tomorrow in rock ‘n’ roll, but that tomorrow is still a ways off and the bluesier approach of Lewis throughout much of this doesn’t give much hints as to what lays around the bend for that instrument when it finally gets unleashed more and more in the next decade.

The trumpets are obviously the sound of yesterday, their presence little more than a fading reminder of what used to be at the forefront of a music that no longer has anywhere near the hold on the emotions of the young demographic that makes up the rock audience as the 1940’s draws to a close.

The sound of the present in rock ‘n’ roll is of course the tenor sax and thankfully THAT is the vital third piece to this mismatched jigsaw puzzle, the one which pulls this up to respectability as a rock song.

The saxophone is a constant presence on Thursday Night Blues, even as Lewis’s guitar takes the primary lead and the trumpets the counterpoint interludes. The sax is something of a supporting player in this production, always present, laying an unobtrusive bed for the others with a mellow – if indistinct – drawn out line that is even sleepier sounding than the rest of this.

But while it appears to act as a sedative, getting you to lower your eyelids and drop your defenses, there’s always something lurking below the surface with that instrument that you know you have to be ready for.

It doesn’t come right away. Even when the sax gets a solo it’s played with the same weary resignation that marked the rest of its appearance, though now we actually get a melody to affix ourselves to which hopefully means you start shaking the cobwebs from your addled brain and begin to focus more intently on your surroundings. If not, don’t say we didn’t warm you because as it goes along the intensity it’s played with gradually increases, the pace quickens and the pay off from all of that built up tension finally gets its release.

It may never really explode in the way we want – or expect – but it at least gets us to finally sit on the edge of our seat, anticipating the threat Thursday Night Blues constantly promises with its ominous mood. There are some moments where digs deep that are met with fierce replies from Lewis and if somebody popped a balloon behind you – or if the drummer cracked the snare just one time – your head might hit the ceiling as you leaped in terror our of your chair.

Instead they dial things back down, content in the knowledge that you were unable to drift off, either in spirit or for a trip to the bar or the bathroom, while they played. It’s locked in to such a monotonous groove which never dissipates that even though the individual parts are far from exemplary the end results are certainly effective.


Just Another Day Of The Week
If Modern Records was hoping this would give them more cachet with the rock audience it doesn’t achieve that goal (though it did manage to crack the Los Angeles charts briefly in Cash Box, a sign of Johnny’s reputation around town no doubt), nor does it do anything to advance the overall cause of rock ‘n’ roll artistically. It’s far too divergent in its components for it to clearly point the way to the future in any regard, but it doesn’t completely set the movement back either if that’s what you were fearing when you first encountered the mix and match philosophy of the arrangement.

In the end Thursday Night Blues is a song that perfectly fits its title. After all, who really makes a big deal out of a Thursday night anyway? There’s nothing inherently exciting about that day of the week. It’s just another day at work or at school, not the beginning of a week where you’re dreading the days to follow, but also not the end of week where you’re already forgetting the travails you’ve endured the last few days and are looking forward to cutting loose.

A Thursday is never anticipated, but rarely dreaded, one which is easily overlooked and then quickly forgotten. Kind of like this song. Though a mere stopover to more exciting days to come that doesn’t mean a random Thursday night can’t be interesting in its own right every once in awhile.

The record was a stopover to more exciting days in the career of Johnny Otis too. A record that served as a bridge from one musical era to another as well as one of just two records he made for a company that would mark only a brief landing spot on his career journey. When we next meet him he’d be heading into a long weekend on Savoy where he’d indulge in some of the wildest parties and biggest celebrations of success that any rock artist had to date.

Then Thursday would be nothing more than the discarded date from those page a day tear off desk calendars that sit at the bottom of the wastebasket at the end of the week, waiting to be taken out with yesterday’s trash.


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