Johnny Otis: 

“That was the devil’s music in those days...but there they were. Youth will not be denied, and especially when it comes to things like...like music and dancing, and the kind of clothes they want to wear.”


Johnny Otis

Johnny Otis

Mathews: Well, as you were growing older then (in early youth), somehow or another you took an interest in playing music. What led to that?

Otis: Well there was a young man (chuckles), he actually lived in west Oakland, but how he and I became friends I don’t know. We were buddying around and...he told me he was going to form a band. And that I was going to be his drummer. I said, “I can’t play no drums...” So, somewhere we found a raggedy old drum set, and he got Robert Johnson on bass, himself on piano and vocals, me on the drums, Al Levy on the guitar and Pops somebody...and, somebody Preston on trumpet, a man with one hand I remember. And Pops on clarinet, that was the ensemble. And we played ...barrelhouse. We didn’t have any name for it then, there was no name.

Mathews: Where did you start, did you start at his, did you bring all this stuff into his house, and set up?

Otis: You know, I don’t remember. It’s too many years ago, I don’t know where we did that.

Mathews: Was that Count Otis Mathews?

Otis: Yeah, Count Otis Mathews, and he...And we would play on Saturday nights at a Black gymnasium in west Oakland.

Mathews: At a school, a school gymnasium?

Otis: A real gym, where the fighters...

Mathews: Oh, is that right? A boxing gym...

Otis: John Henry Louis, the lightweight champion, used to,that was his training camp. Again, we got no money for that. But we didn’t care, because the little girls were there.  And that was the idea. You know, originally for most people, folk music grows out of a need to be viewed positively by your peers and the community, and to be thought of as a good musician. Not a trained musician, by any means. And that the little girls would flock around. Count Otis had a device where he had little cans, tomato can full of rocks. I don’t know what was in ‘em, little pebbles, and he’d call the little girls up one by one, pick out the ones he wanted and there’d be about eight girls on stage and he’d do his featured number called, “Mama Bought  a Chicken”. And they’d shake these shakers (makes shaking sound), and while they were up there we got a chance to lean over and talk to ‘em, and pretty soon, you know, maybe...

Mathews: After you’d bring them up? 

Otis: Yeah, they’d be on the stage, yeah. And once they were on the stage they were, (chuckles)...We had ‘em!...we hoped.

Mathews: So these were like community functions, sort of?

Otis: No. They were low class functions. Those little girls’ parents would be horrified to know that they were down there, shakin’ butt to the blues. That was the devil’s music in those days. In the funky gymnasium, but there they were. Youth will not be denied, and especially when it comes to things like...like music and dancing, and the kind of clothes they want to wear. 

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Excerpts from the audio

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L  I S T E N   T O   T H E   M U S I C :

California Rhythm and Blues Music: 1945-1955

1. Everyday I Have the Blues: Earl Good Rockin’ Brown with Lowell Fulson’s band (1949)

Everyday I Have the Blues

2. Double Crossing Blues: Johnny Otis with Little Esther Phillips (1949)

Double Crossing Blues


3. Honkey Tonk: Bill Doggett (1956)


Honkey Tonk