Upside Your Head!: Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue (Music/Culture)
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Legendary jazzman Johnny Otis has spent a lifetime at the center of L.A.'s black music scene as a composer, performer, producer, d.j., activist, and preacher. His energetic, anecdotal memoir, Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue, recalls the music, the great performers, and the vibrant culture of the district, as well as the political and social forces -- including virulent white racism -- that have shaped black life in Los Angeles. Resonating with anger, poignancy, joy, and defiance, Upside Your Head! is a unique document of the African-American musical and cultural experience.
Upside Your Head! recalls a 50-year career when it seems Otis either encountered, discovered, or performed with every significant figure in the early days of rhythm & blues and rock 'n' roll, including Count Basie, Esther Phillips, T-Bone Walker, Big Mama Thornton, and Lester Young. Drawing on dozens of vignettes, personal photographs, and hours of taped interviews from the popular "Johnny Otis Show," Upside Your Head! offers a moving tribute to the black community that gave birth to L.A.'s rhythm and blues. His stories celebrate the true roots in black culture of a distinctive American music while lamenting its eventual appropriation by the dominant white society.
groups in the 1950s. He left music in the 1960 to work in the electronics industry but returned to recordings and live performances in the 1970s. area, that area that was fondly referred to by the people of the thirties, forties, and fifties as "The Avenue." While Central Avenue itself, first at 11th Street and Central Avenue, and later and more importantly, at 42nd and Central, was the heartland and the main focus of the activity, other streets and areas were vital parts of the Central Avenue
also taught Walter Page and Charlie Parker. He joined the Bennie Moten Orchestra in 1923, and in 1931 started his own band, the Kansas City Skyrockets. Leonard later organized the Rockets and recorded with them on Bluebird. Johnny Otis went to L.A. as their drummer in 1943. Page 49 spit out of his trombone slide, took a deep breath and said, "Thass what I said, E flat." Saxophonist James Kieth looked back in exasperation and shouted, "B flat, motherfucker! BEE as in Botato!" Almost every
quieted down. Millie Calhoun, one of the Three Tons, sat down beside me and said, "Don't feel bad, John, you made a mistake, but we all know you didn't want this to happen." "I said, "Thanks, baby." The day we got home, the L.A. police picked me up and took me to jail. The agent had me arrested, claiming I stole his P.A. system and moved it across a state line. I had been in jail twice before. The first time on a draft-dodging charge. My induction notice had been sent to a pre-
Buddy Floyd, and Lester Young. A bit later came Clifford Scott, Earl Bostic, Lee Allen, Plas Johnson, and King Curtis. There were other important players on both piano and saxophone, of course, but the above readily come to mind. Where rhythm and blues guitar is concerned, there is no need to strain the memory to come up with who the original influences were. There was exactly one. T-Bone. Aaron Thibeaux Walker. He single-handedly defined what rhythm and blues guitar was all about. From him
employed playing lead guitar, bass, and keyboards on recording sessions for a variety of artists. In 1968, Johnny Otis recorded and produced an album for Kent Records, Cold Shot, that featured fifteen-year-old Shuggie on lead guitar along with appearances by several veterans of the Los Angeles rhythm and blues scene, including Don "Sugarcane" Harris and Delmar Evans. They had no guarantee that the album would even be released, but it became a big seller, generated a hit single on the rhythm and