Tag Archives: Music

Johnny Otis, an all-American original

With the passing of rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Johnny Otis, who died last week at the age of 90, America lost a musical creator and curator who, in his own way, did as much as Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry to shape the soundtrack of the modern world. This San Francisco Chronicle appreciation story makes that clear:

He discovered Little Richard and songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. He produced their song “Hound Dog” with Big Mama Thornton when Elvis Presley was still at Humes High. He met 14-year-old Etta James backstage at a concert at the long-gone Primalon Ballroom on Fillmore Street and, that very night, whisked her to Los Angeles to make her first record the next day.

Otis’ musical contributions were rich and varied, and his 1994 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was greatly deserved. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Otis was the brave way he lived his life, and what it says about the complexity of race and culture in America.

Here’s something a lot of people didn’t know: Johnny Otis was not a black man. He was the child of Greek immigrants, and his real name was Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes. He grew up in a largely black neighborhood in Berkeley, Calif., where he developed his love and affinity for African-American culture.

But Otis didn’t just immerse himself in the all-American culture of black people in this country — he consciously reinvented himself as “black” (or “black by persuasion,” as he called it). His remarkable musical dexterity flowed from that deep well of cultural understanding and allowed him to communicate with all Americans in the national language of the blues, which Ralph Ellison described as “an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstances.”

In the wake of his death, some have framed Otis’ life as an expression of “anti-racism.”  It’s true that he arrived at a deeply segregated time in our history, and the arc of his life proves that racial categories are meaningless. It’s also true that the rock ‘n’ roll music he pioneered has done more on a human level to shatter those rigid categories than any legislation could.  But anti-racism is too simple an evaluation of his importance.

At his core, Otis is an extravagant example of the subtly multiracial society that Albert Murray revealed in The Omni-Americans:

“American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto. Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.”

Greek immigrant child Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes, who became black musical impresario Johnny Otis, helped point America back to its miscegenated heart. For that, we should all be thankful.


Elvis Presley, my mom and mortality

Elvis Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977, 33 years ago this week. That date also was my mother’s 40th birthday.

What’s the connection? This:

Patsy is the one on the left.

This photo of my mother with Elvis was snapped after a concert in Sheffield, Ala., in 1955 — a few months before the young singer from humble beginnings in Tupelo, Miss., would generate the kind of hysteria that would make a semi-intimate fan photo like this almost impossible.  Then, he was just a handsome up-and-comer who was part of a multi-act touring show. After the release of Heartbreak Hotel in early 1956, his world — and ours — changed forever.

As for Patsy,  the young student from humble beginnings in Haleyville, Ala., obviously didn’t achieve international fame, but she did become an award-winning educator and a wonderful mother. She was only a slight fan of Elvis’ music (I think we owned maybe two of his albums), but his death, falling on the day she crossed over to middle age, clearly affected her. She seemed more stunned than mournful, perhaps because the demise at 42 of the larger-than-life personality who once briefly clasped her hand was an intimate reminder that youth is fleeting, and death can arrive when we least expect it.

Sadly, my mother’s own death came far too early as well — 14 years later, at the age of 54. And unlike Elvis’, it wasn’t sudden; cancer, not an overdose, was the culprit.

These two disparate lives crossed paths just once. Fortunately for me and my family, that moment is memorialized in this photo.

It’s impossible for me to look at it without feeling wonder and sadness at the trajectory of both their lives, especially the woman who helped me become the man I am today.

Happy birthday, Mom. I still miss you.

Song of the day: ‘Solace’

Here you go: A near-perfect rendition of Scott Joplin’s beautiful Solace:

The segment after the brief pause (about 46 seconds into the song) is especially evocative — sad and pensive, yet hopeful, too. It’s the essence of the blues. But then, the story of Scott Joplin, an American genius who went unrecognized as such during his lifetime,  is the blues incarnate  — a man engaged in a complex, painful, joyful, improvisational, stubborn and, ultimately, heroic struggle with the tragic limitations of life.

Brazilian soul? No. 1 with ‘Bullet’

Mindless channel-surfing can combine with purposeful Web-searching to spin you in surprising and satisfying directions.

I was flipping around one night after work when I stumbled across a disturbing, fascinating documentary on IFC, Manda Bala (Send a Bullet). The film’s subject matter — crime and political corruption in Brazil — would be compelling enough on its own. But what really grabbed me was the soundtrack, and this song in particular:

I was instantly intrigued by the tune, so I jumped on Google to try to find out more about the soundtrack. From there, it was an easy search for the artist, Tim Maia (a fascinating character worthy of his own documentary). And then to  iTunes, where I purchased the song, and then to YouTube, where I found the video and shared it on my Facebook page. Pretty cool.

There’s a lot of talk about how the Internet is making us stupid, and in an online world populated with cat videos, illiterate Facebook status updates and much worse, they may have a point. But 15 years ago, it would have been impossible for me to learn about and purchase a song I really like within 10 minutes of hearing it on TV — and do it without leaving the comfy chair in my den.