UCSB black studies and sociology professor George Lipsitz recently released a book detailing the life and legend of African-American cultural icon Johnny Otis.
The biography — titled Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story — aims to highlight the music legend’s accomplishments and his role in the evolution of African-American culture. After years of research, the book was published last month by the University of Minnesota Press.
Lipsitz said he hopes the book will appeal not only to scholars and college students, but also to the general public.
“Books are often used in college classrooms when they’re written by a researcher,” Lipsitz said. “But I felt that Johnny is such a person-oriented individual, he always felt the pulse of the people. I tried to write a book about him that is both serious and scholarly. I hope that the book will carry his ideas and artistry to new people.”
According to Lipsitz, Otis defied the racist social norms that plagued his generation.
“Although he was born to immigrants from Greece, he grew up in a Black neighborhood in Berkeley and married a Black woman,” Lipsitz said. “Johnny’s life from the 1920s to the present is not just a life, but also a history of the cooperation and conflict between Blacks and whites in this society.”
Otis’ musical accomplishments, which contributed to the evolution of African-American music, led to his eventual induction in both the Rock and Roll and Blues Halls of Fame. His best-known song was “Willie and the Hand Jive,” which became a top-10 hit in the summer of 1958.
In addition to forming a rhythm and blues band responsible for 17 top-40 hits, Otis also opened the first R&B nightclub, wrote for a Los Angeles newspaper and hosted popular radio and television programs. The entrepreneur also discovered numerous music legends including Etta James, Jackie Wilson, Big Mama Thornton and Esther Phillips.
“He says he ‘got captured’ by black culture,” Lipsitz said. “When the KKK burned crosses on his front lawn, he didn’t stop what he was doing. He showed that he had great integrity and great moral strength.”
Faculty and staff members, including librarian Sylvia Curtis, praised Lipsitz as an intelligent and innovative professor and author.
“I’ve talked with students who are taking his classes and get the feeling that they are astounded every time they go to one of his lectures,” Curtis said. “There’s so much to learn about African-American culture and he frames it in sociological structures that make it so vivid and real to the students.”
Lipsitz said he encourages readers to explore the larger historical influences that have shaped the world.
“Famous or infamous people help take you through life and help you see what has structured whole societies,” Lipsitz said.