Johnny Otis’ Other Hand Jive
Johnny Otis died Tuesday. He was 90. The great bandleader and songwriter was also an impressive visual artist, and I spoke with him about it in 1995 for Blues Access magazine.
They only met briefly, long, long ago. But Johnny Otis hasn’t forgotten Mr. Charlie or his dogs.
“It was on one of our trips down South in Mississippi. We pulled into a rural gas station/restaurant. It’s 1950, and here’s a big bus painted with all kinds of carnival things – Johnny Otis’ Rhythm and Blues Caravan, Little Esther, all that stuff in bright red colors.
“A young guy was running the gas station. It shook him up – all he saw was a bunch of black people getting off the bus. I saw him run in and make a call on the phone. I don’t know what he thought this was – the invasion of the rhythm and blues creatures,” Otis is saying during a phone interview in between bites of the leopard shark he’s munching at his Sebastapol, California, home.
“Right quick here comes this big honky with two terrible looking dogs,” he continues, emphasizing the word terrible. “We got back in the bus, and he just looked at us, and we froze. He just walked around us. The dogs looked at us and growled and growled. Oh, he loved the way he was terrorizing the black folks. I had a P-38 under my belt, and I thought, ‘If Charlie gonna start any shit, I’m going to take him with me’.”
“I remember him standing looking at us with a grin, then he pulled out a cigarette and struck a match. It’s that image that’s in my mind. We got our gas, and we left. That was it. We always referred to that as ‘Mr. Charlie’s Dogs’.”
It is a story worth retelling, but you won’t find it in the Johnny Otis songbook. He rather chose to remember Mr. Charlie’s Dogs in a 1986 acrylic-on-canvas painting. It’s in Colors and Chords (Pomegranate Artbooks), a new book on Otis’ art. “Mr. Charlie’s Dogs” is on the cover of this issue.
To his considerable achievements over the last half century – as bandleader, musician, hit songwriter, community activist, organic grocer, occasional preacher – be sure and add visual artist. Otis’ talent has manifested itself, especially during the last 10-13 years, in paintings, lithographs and sculpture detailing contemporary black lifestyles, his music milieu and socio-political themes.
“Painting was something I just did, mostly as therapy in between gigs,” he explains. “What are you going to do when you’re off for a month? That happens in the music business. Can’t go fishing all the time.”
His active art life dates back to 1945, when he began sketching cartoons of band life for fun. “As we would be riding along in the bus, I would just sketch a little something funny, and everybody would laugh. And it turned into a request program about what happened the night before, something naughty or something sexy or something ridiculous. Most of them have bit the dust by now except for the ones in the book.”
Colors and Chords offers a couple of works, including the brooding, moody “Nat Turner” oil painting, from the early 1960s. Then Otis didn’t paint for a long time. “The only time I feel really emotionally inspired to do any artwork is when I’m in music,” he admits. “When I’m out of music, shit, I’m miserable.”
The late 1960s and early 1970s were lean years for the Johnny Otis Band. “That was when the British Invasion occurred, and we couldn’t get a goddam job. We weren’t working with the band for a stretch of years. As I think back, coincidentally, I didn’t do any art work to speak of, either.”
It wasn’t until 1979 that we went back to art in earnest. “We were working again,” he says. “We were playing all the time.” And Otis went on a tear, creating in many media, echoing Picasso and cubist painters and native African styles in his brightly colored, primitive, plastic and wood sculptures. Being immersed in music also stimulated his visually creative style.
“I went into an art store to buy a little pad of paper, pencils and pens, and I see all these colors, all these paints, and I said, ‘Shit.’ They were a magnet. It just happened like that.”
Otis believes that music and painting and sculpture have much in common. As a major chord is made up of the tonic, third and fifth notes, he sees the same triad in the three primary colors. And as you find out in music, there are new, interesting shading possible by mixing the colors or the chords.
That thinking can be readily seen in a whimsical oil painting of a band called “Olive and the Primaries.” “These are not true-to-life characters,” Otis says. “These are composites of musicians I’ve seen and heard. Olive’s breasts are shaped like olives, and the members of the band have faces in the primary colors – red, yellow and blue.”
Some other Otis paintings – Boogie Stompers,” “The Blues,” “Little Esther” and “Silas Green” – capture the immediacy and intimacy of the Otis band itinerary: fairgrounds, juke joints and clubs of the chitlin’ circuit. Otis rarely focuses on the star, instead weaving a wealth of detail, from the Super Dog stand in “The Blues” to the long, gold watch fob dangling from the waist of the dancer in “Little Esther.” That comes from the unique perspective he gets as bandleader; while we’re watching the band, they’re checking us out, too. “From my vantage point at the piano and up on the bandstand, I see a panoramic view, left to right – the bar, bartenders, dancers, waitresses, patrons, hangers-on.”
Like any artist, Otis doesn’t want to talk much about what motivates such work. “How do I know what I’m going to do tomorrow? I do whatever strikes me. I don’t have any boundaries about style. I just like to throw that shit around on the canvas and paint.”
Still, he’s giggling with anticipation at his next work. “The cartoon I’m going to do tonight is for my fishing buddies. One of us was charged with fixing the bait, and he fucked up, and we were so mad.” He laughed again.
Besides his current fishing jones, Otis is particularly proud of his band, which is working regularly on weekends at a local supper club called Lena’s and choosing assorted dates elsewhere. “The band is so strong,” he enthuses. “Every instrument has an exceptional person, and the singer is great.”
That he’s so excited about music should mean that he’s painting or sculpting again, but during the hot summer of 1995 Otis chose fishing. He prefers cooler weather so he can fire up a little wood stove in his home studio, where he’s working on a couple of large-scale paintings “If I can keep the pot belly full of wood and coals, I can paint for a long time.”
We received a letter from Otis soon afterwards and published it in the magazine:
I really like Blues Access a lot. Thanks for the article on my art. The bright colors on your covers is a good format. It makes the publication stand out against other magazines.
I hope the page-after-page of ads means you’re enjoying commercial success. And if you’re that successful, I think we should arrange a loan. Two or three hundred thousands dollars should be about right. Let’s do it in small bills — in cash, OK? And no IOUs please, because I’m allergic to paperwork.
If you ever get up to the California boondocks, let me know and we’ll hook up.