Johnny Otis, 90

ONE OF the topics I’ve explored in writing now and again is the subject of “fluid identity” all sorts of passing — shedding one identity to try on another, eliding one hyphenated category to make way to enter another.

Passing takes all sorts forms. Johnny Otis, singer/musician DJ, was one of the more flamboyant examples. A white kid who grew up in Northern Calironia in the 20s who decided, because of the music and culture that pumped through his neighborhood that he’d rather be black — and so the pose began.

Otis died Tuesday in Los Angeles where he had made his home most of his life and became a fixture here.

From Randy Lewis’ L.A. Times obit today:

“Yes, I chose,” Otis told The Times in 1979, “because despite all the hardships, there’s a wonderful richness in black culture that I prefer.” . . . .

He started playing drums with big bands and jazz combos, and in his early 20s came to L.A. to join Harlan Leonard’s Kansas City Rockers, the house band at Club Alabam on the thriving Central Avenue jazz-blues-R&B club scene.

“Man, you could go into one club and there’d be [jazz saxophone giant] Lester Young jamming, go into another and you’d find T Bone [Walker, the Texas blues guitarist and singer], and down the street Miles [Davis] would be blowing,” Otis said in 1979. “Yeah, L.A. was happening.”

full obit here

And here’s a taste: “Willie and the Hand Jive”


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