The Greek-American R&B Legend Who Passed as Black

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-09-22 02:49Z by Steven

The Greek-American R&B Legend Who Passed as Black

Zócalo Public Square

Kristen E. Broady, Dean and Professor of Economics
College of Business
Dillard University, New Orleans, Louisiana

An Excelsior Records advertisement features R&B pioneer Johnny Otis between blues singer Jimmy Rushing and bandleader Gerald Wilson. Courtesy of Flickr.

Johnny Otis Felt He Had Been ‘Saved’ by the Political, Spiritual, and Moral Force of African-American Culture

If a role exists in black music that Johnny Otis couldn’t play, it would be hard to find. Known as the godfather of rhythm and blues, Otis was a bandleader, talent scout, singer, drummer, minister, journalist, and television show host. Between 1950 and 1952, Johnny and his band recorded 15 top 40 R&B blues hits. He discovered, produced and promoted a roster of stars, including Etta James, Little Esther, and Jackie Wilson.

Otis was not only a trailblazer in the world of music but also a religious leader and political activist. Born seven months after the beginning of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, he lived through Supreme Court decisions that decriminalized interracial marriage, barred racial gerrymandering of political districts, and ended covenants barring black Americans from owning property. He witnessed the inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president and was a friend of Malcolm X and an enemy of racial oppression. Yet Johnny Otis, arguably one of the most important figures in mid-century black music in America, was not actually black. He was white, passing as black

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Are you racially fluid?

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Caribbean/Latin America, Media Archive, Passing, Politics/Public Policy, Social Justice, Social Science, United States, Videos on 2018-03-03 02:33Z by Steven

Are you racially fluid?

Cable News Network (CNN)

Story by John Blake, CNN
Video by Tawanda Scott Sambou, CNN

The blurring of racial lines won’t save America. Why ‘racial fluidity’ is a con

(CNN) He was a snappy dresser with slicked back hair and a pencil mustache. A crack bandleader, musician and legendary talent scout, he was dubbed the “Godfather of R&B.”

But Johnny Otis’ greatest performance was an audacious act of defiance he orchestrated offstage.

Most people who saw Otis perform during his heyday in the 1950s thought he was a light-skinned black man. He used “we” when talking about black people, married his black high school sweetheart and stayed in substandard “for colored only” hotels with his black bandmates when they toured the South.

Johnny Otis, though, wasn’t his real name. He was born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes to Greek immigrants in Northern California. He grew up in a black neighborhood where he developed such a kinship with black culture that he walked away from his whiteness and became black by choice.

“As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black,” he wrote in his 1968 book, “Listen to the Lambs.”

“No number of objections such as ‘You were born white … you can never be black’ on the part of the whites, or ‘You sure are a fool to be colored when you could be white’ from Negroes, can alter the fact that I cannot think of myself as white.

“I do not expect everybody to understand it, but it is a fact. I am black environmentally, psychologically, culturally, emotionally, and intellectually.”…

…What if racial fluidity leads not to less racism, but to more?

That’s the warning being issued by many who study racial fluidity — including some who are racially fluid themselves. They say people are naïve if they believe expanding the menu of racial choices will lead to more tolerance; that racism is deeper and more adaptable than people realize.

A brown-skinned man with a white mother can gush all he wants about his DNA mix, but that won’t stop him from being racially profiled, says Rainier Spencer, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who has written extensively about mixed-race identity, including his own.

“If I stand on a corner holding a sign saying, ‘I’m racially fluid,'” says Spencer, “that still doesn’t mean I’m going to get a cab.”…

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Sugar Pie DeSanto: After 50 Years, ‘Go Going’ Strong

Posted in Articles, Arts, Audio, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2013-09-23 03:41Z by Steven

Sugar Pie DeSanto: After 50 Years, ‘Go Going’ Strong

Fresh Air from WHYY [Philadelphia]
National Public Radio

Terry Gross, Host

Ed Ward, Rock Music Commentator

Ace Records

Sugar Pie DeSanto was born in Brooklyn in October 1935, and was christened Umpeleya Marsema Balinton. Her father was Filipino, her mother African-American. Her mother had been a concert pianist, but DeSanto says her father couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. He moved the family to San Francisco when Peliya, as they called her, was 4, and soon enough, the young girl discovered dancing and singing and made a fast friend with a neighbor named Jamesetta Hawkins, who was a member of a girl gang called the Lucky 20’s.

Hawkins wound up in jail for her gang activities, and when she got out, she formed a singing group with one of Peliya’s younger sisters. Peliya looked on in envy as Hawkins was discovered by bandleader Johnny Otis and re-christened Etta James. She started entering talent contests in San Francisco, and won so often, they told her to stop entering. At another talent contest in L.A., Otis saw her again and offered to record her. He made good on his offer, and gave her a stage name, too: Little Miss Sugar Pie…

Read the story here. Listen to the story here. Read the transcript here.

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Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story

Posted in Arts, Biography, Books, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2013-01-07 19:48Z by Steven

Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story

University of Minnesota Press
272 pages
23 b&w plates, 6 x 9
cloth ISBN: 978-0-8166-6678-2

George Lipsitz, Professor of Black Studies and Sociology
University of California, Santa Barbara

Considered by many to be the godfather of R&B, Johnny Otis—musician, producer, artist, entrepreneur, pastor, disc jockey, writer, and tireless fighter for racial equality—has had a remarkable life by any measure. In this first biography of Otis, George Lipsitz tells the largely unknown story of a towering figure in the history of African American music and culture who was, by his own description, “black by persuasion.”

Born to Greek immigrant parents in Vallejo, California, in 1921, Otis grew up in an integrated neighborhood and identified deeply with black music and culture from an early age. He moved to Los Angeles as a young man and submerged himself in the city’s vibrant African American cultural life, centered on Central Avenue and its thriving music scene. Otis began his six-decade career in music playing drums in territory swing bands in the 1930s. He went on to lead his own band in the 1940s and open the Barrelhouse nightclub in Watts. His R&B band had seventeen Top 40 hits between 1950 and 1969, including “Willie and the Hand Jive.” As a producer and A&R man, Otis discovered such legends as Etta James, Jackie Wilson, and Big Mama Thornton.

Otis also wrote a column for the Sentinel, one of L.A.’s leading black newspapers, became pastor of his own interracial church, hosted popular radio and television shows that introduced millions to music by African American artists, and was lauded as businessman of the year in a 1951 cover story in Negro Achievements magazine. Throughout his career Otis’s driving passion has been his fearless and unyielding opposition to racial injustice, whether protesting on the front lines, exposing racism and championing the accomplishments of black Americans, or promoting African American musicians.

Midnight at the Barrelhouse is a chronicle of a life rich in both incident and inspiration, as well as an exploration of the complicated nature of race relations in twentieth-century America. Otis’s total commitment to black culture and transcendence of racial boundaries, Lipsitz shows, teach important lessons about identity, race, and power while encapsulating the contradictions of racism in American society.

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The L.A. Scene: Teaching Race and Popular Music in the 1950s

Posted in Articles, Arts, History, New Media, United States on 2012-10-01 19:50Z by Steven

The L.A. Scene: Teaching Race and Popular Music in the 1950s

Organization of American Historians Magazine of History
Volume 26, Issue 4
pages 17-20
DOI: 10.1093/oahmag/oas030

Luis Alvarez, Associate Professor of History
University of California, San Diego

In 1956, Little Julian Herrera had one of the biggest rhythm and blues hits of the year in Los Angeles. His soulful, doo-wop style ballad, “Lonely Lonely Nights,” turned Herrera into an overnight sensation. He was soon known across the city for spectacular live performances that later drew comparisons to a young James Brown. He became a teen idol and heartthrob among Mexican American girls on the Eastside. What many of his fans may not have known, however, was that Herrera was neither Mexican American nor from L.A. He was an East Hungarian Jew who had run away from his Massachusetts home at age eleven. His given name was Ezekiel, though his probation officer knew him as Ron Gregory. After hitchhiking to Southern California, he was taken in by a Mexican American family in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East L.A. and eventually took their surname as his own.

“Lonely Lonely Nights” was produced by the legendary Johnny Otis. Born the son of Greek immigrants in Vallejo, California, Otis came of musical age as a drummer and bandleader playing African American jazz and blues joints along Central Avenue in L.A. By the mid-1950s when he helped launch Little Julian Herrera into local stardom, Otis already was a formidable figure in the L.A. music scene who soon became known as the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues.” He produced records, hosted radio and television programs, and organized dances and concerts. He was also regularly harassed by local authorities for creating and promoting music whose performers and audiences often crossed racial lines. Otis, in fact, considered himself “black by persuasion.” He once remarked, “Genetically, I’m pure Greek. Psychologically, environmentally, culturally, by choice, I’m a member of the black community”. In a scenario emblematic of the racial diversity of L.A.’s 1950s…

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Johnny Otis, ‘Godfather of Rhythm and Blues,’ Dies at 90

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, Media Archive, United States on 2012-01-19 22:41Z by Steven

Johnny Otis, ‘Godfather of Rhythm and Blues,’ Dies at 90

New York Times

Ihsan Taylor

Johnny Otis, the musician, bandleader, songwriter, impresario, disc jockey and talent scout often called “the godfather of rhythm and blues,” died on Tuesday at his home in Altadena, Calif. He was 90.

His death was confirmed by his manager, Terry Gould.

Leading a band in the late 1940s that combined the high musical standards of big-band jazz with the raw urgency of gospel music and the blues, Mr. Otis played a key role in creating a new sound for a new audience of young urban blacks, a sound that within a few years would form the foundation of rock ’n’ roll.

With his uncanny ear for talent, he helped steer a long list of performers to stardom, among them Etta James, Jackie Wilson, Esther Phillips and Big Mama Thornton — whose hit recording of “Hound Dog,” made in 1952, four years before Elvis Presley’s, was produced by Mr. Otis and featured him on drums.

…Despite being a mover and shaker in the world of black music, Mr. Otis was not black, a fact that as far as he was concerned was simply an accident of birth. He was immersed in African-American culture from an early age and considered himself, he said, “black by persuasion.”

“Genetically, I’m pure Greek,” he told The San Jose Mercury News in 1994. “Psychologically, environmentally, culturally, by choice, I’m a member of the black community.”…

Read the entire obituary here.

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