Johnny Otis – That’s Your Last Boogie (review)

Johnny Otis – That’s Your Last Boogie – The Best of 1945-1960 (Fantastic Voyage) review

When talking about pioneers of R&B and early rock n’ roll – names like Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, James Brown, and Sam Phillips all come to mind.  But, after listening to the new, three-disc compilation from Fantastic Voyage, That’s Your Last Boogie, Johnny Otis has to be on that list as well.

Johnny Otis was a juggernaut in the music business – a colossally important figure in the the early development of both R&B and rock n’ roll.  Without his keen eye for talent, we may never have known legendary performers like Etta James, Little Ester Phillips, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, and Little Willie John.  Otis co-wrote, produced and played drums on one of the first rock n’ roll songs, the original “Hound Dog,” sung by Big Mama Thorton.  And, he played vibes on Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love.”  In other words, he was a monster!

Of Greek descent, Otis grew up in a black neighborhood in California.  He was so taken by the music, that he chose to adopt the African-American culture as his own.  He began in the 1940’s leading big bands, and scoring a legendary hit with “Harlem Nocturne.”  Drummer, record producer, vibes man, talent scout, radio show host, club owner, songwriter – Otis did it all.

Disc one of the set finds Otis wearing many hats – playing drums on the seminal “Drifting Blues,” by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, featuring Charles Brown on vocals, and leading the band that backed Wynonie Harris on “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo,” and Jimmy Rushing on “Jimmy’s Round the Clock Blues.”  These early sides are in a classic, R&B style, but Otis could swing with the best of them, and there’s plenty of examples, including the medley of “One O’ Clock Jump / Omaha Flash.”  He even backed legendary jazzman Lester Young on “Jammin’ With Lester.”

Little Esther Phillips enters the picture near the end of disc one (he saw her singing in a talent show at a bar he owned and decided to take her on the road with him). “Mean Ole Gal,” one of her earliest recordings, is a strutting R&B number that transcends her young age.  There’s also early sides of the fine vocal group, the Robins, who would eventually morph into the Coasters several years later.  The teaming of both Phillips and the Robins worked to a charm with their R&B smash “Double Crossing Blues.”  Near the end of disc one, “New Orleans Shuffle” introduces one of the grittiest guitar sounds laid down to that point in music.

By disc two, Otis added Mel Walker, the perfect male foil to the flamboyant Phillips, and their pairing produced a huge run of R&B chart entries.  Hearing both Phillips and Otis introduce their new single “Mistrustin’ Blues” is a real hoot.  The bulk of this disc is made up of the tried and true R&B sound they had perfected, although they were constantly looking to improve things – take the telephone sound effects at the start of “Call Operator 210.”

Disc three finds Otis moving further toward rock n’ roll – the original “Hound Dog” is blistering – it makes the later version from Mr. Presley sound downright tame.  Otis shows his versatility by playing vibes on Johnny Ace’s gorgeous ballad “Pledging My Love.”  There’s also an early side of his discovery, Etta James, in “The Wallflower,” as well as a teaming with Little Richard on “Little Richard’s Boogie.”

Near the end of the set, Otis starts using the “Bo-Diddley beat” to great effect, especially on “Willie and the Hand Jive,” criminally his only Top 40 hit, but other tracks like “Castin’ My Spell” are just as good.  For whatever reason, despite Otis being able to adapt to numerous styles over the years, this period marked the end of his mainstream popularity.  That’s Your Last Boogie does an incredible job of showcasing one of the unsung heroes in all of popular music.  Anyone interested in the early development of rock n’ roll should snatch this one up.  –Tony Peters