For this third dip into Johnny Otis' Dig vaults we showcase a wonderful array of fine R&B talent that was recorded at his studio during the mid 50s. These range from blues guitar legends Pete Lewis, Johnny 'Guitar' Watson and Jimmy Nolen through R&B duos Tony Allen and Barbara, Jessie & Joyce and singing pianists Ray Johnson, Devonia Williams and Richard Lewis.
The pivotal part of these sessions was the top class musicians that Otis recruited into the operation. Horns and brass were Don Johnson, George Washington, Fred Harmon, Lorenzo Holden and James Von Streeter and ex-Roy Milton band member Jackie Kelso, who was employed for A&R duties and frequently played his horn on many dates. Pete Lewis was lead guitarist until he was replaced by Jimmy Nolen, the rising new star of the Los Angeles scene. Devonia Williams or Johnny Otis handled the keyboard chores, Winston Williams or Johnny Parker played bass and Leard K C Bell was on drums.
Because Dig was only a small operation with a limited release schedule, many fine masters that were cut were either put to one side or got lost in the shuffle.
While going through the hundreds of reels of tape I was overjoyed when I found a box noted as by Johnny Watson and Jeannie- although undated it was certainly recorded sometime between 1955 and 1956. I think Jeannie is actually Jeannie Barnes whom Otis produced and then leased her sides to Aladdin. The most likely reason for the non-issue of the Watson sides is that he was still under contract to Modern. However Johnny Otis later went on to produce those wonderful Watson sides for King in the early 1960s.
Another artist who never got released on Dig was Henry Strogin, an active vocalist who worked solo and with the Crowns vocal group in the south central Los Angeles region. 'My Aching Feet' was among a number of sides that he cut in the Dig studio, and he recut it later for Dynamic Records in the early 60s.
Strogin's best known number is the remake of Al Simmons' 'Old Folks Boogie' which he re-wrote as 'Old Folks Boogie When The Young Ones Twist' on Ball 1012. Strogin also appeared on several other labels including Hank, Sylvia, Amazon and Ten Star.
Another dusty tape box revealed an artist named Robert McKirby which contained one song 'I've Been Blind, Blind, Blind' not issued at the time. McKirby's name does not have an entry on my files.
The blues instrumental 'Jimmy's Jive' features the late Jimmy Nolen on guitar. It is clear that Nolen's licks on this track must have influenced Otis Rush in his formative years. Nolen's story is covered in the notes on Volume Two "Dig These Blues" CDCHD 334.
Pianist and vocalist Richard Lewis had worked in Los Angeles since the 40s where he first recorded for Imperial and Modern as Dick Lewis and His Barons. Marvin Phillips of Marvin and Johnny Fame got his start working with Lewis' band. 'Hey Little Girl' was produced and leased to Aladdin by Johnny Otis. Lewis also cut a number of duets with Dolores Gibson whom Otis produced for King.
One of the hottest guitarists working on the coast during the 40s and 50s was Louisiana-born Carl Pete Lewis. He was discovered by Johnny Otis at his Barrelhouse Club at the Thursday Night Talent Hour. Lewis went on to be a permanent member of Otis' band and is featured on most of Otis' sides for Modern, Savoy, Mercury, Peacock and Aladdin. Lewis also cut a small number solo sides for Federal and Peacock. 'Get Away From Here' I found on an unmarked tape reel in the Dig archives and shows that Lewis was no slouch when it came to singing the blues. Sadly he was under recorded in this mode. He left Otis in 1956 and rarely appeared on record again. He died in the late 60s.
Some already established artists auditioned at Dig, including Ray Johnson, the brother of tenor sax maestro Plas Johnson. The brothers were natives of New Orleans where they first recorded as the Johnson Brothers for Deluxe in 1949. In the early 50s they both moved to California where they became very active on the recording scene. Ray Johnson cut dozens of singles for labels such as Mercury, Blend, Aladdin, Flip, Demon, Imperial, Del-Fi and Acclaim to mention just a few.
'Itty Bitty Bee' comes from an unreleased Dig session cut between 1955 and 1956. The Johnson brothers were reunited with Otis when they appeared as accompanists on the Hawksound album "The Johnny Otis Show 1984". Ray Johnson is another artist on the LA scene who needs tracking down for an interview.
A long-time member of The Johnny Otis Show was comedian Little Arthur Matthews who originally worked as Dope in the comedy duo Mope and Dope. He worked later on with Skillet of Skillet and Leroy Fame. He was also discovered at the Barrelhouse Club. Matthew was a good blues singer and cut 'I'm Gonna Whale On You' with the Otis Band for Federal in 1955. In 1956 he cut the rocking 'Hot Diggety Dog' as 'Bad Bad Bulldog' for Dig 117. As noted by Tony Collins on Johnny Otis' "Creepin' With The Cats" CDCHD 325 Preston Love did not actually play on the Dig sides credited to him. 'Country Boogie' (Dig 116) was the B-side of 'Country Home' by the Sailor Boy, this is in fact The Johnny Otis Band featuring Pete Lewis on guitar.
R&B duos were very popular during the 50s. Jessie & Joyce cut several sides for Dig, including 'Much More'. However these remained unreleased until now. Jessie Ervin was the brother of Frankie Ervin; Jessie was a regular studio session guitarist in the 50s and worked on hundreds of R&B dates, including sides by Charles Brown and Lloyd Glenn.
Devonia Williams was with the Johnny
Otis organization for many years where she worked in his band as pianist and sometimes as vocalist. She was known as 'Lady Dee' and was also discovered at the Barrelhouse. While Otis was recording for Savoy, she cut several solo sides as the Dee Williams Sextette in 1949. 'Things Won't Be Right Without You' on this collection was found at the end of the Johnny Watson session and Watson is featured on guitar. Devonia quit the business in the late 50s because of her bad eyesight and diabetes. In the early 60s she became blind and died shortly afterwards.
Distaff vocalist Dessa Ray's 'Ain't Gonna Tell' was produced and leased to the Mesner's 7-11 label in the 50s, of which this is an alternate take.
Tony Allen has worked around the Los Angeles area for many years and recorded extensively during the 50s and 60s under his own name or as leader of various vocal groups including the Chimes, Champs, Wanderers, Twilighters and Nite Owls. 'Check Yourself' on this collection was first issued on Ultra 104. Later re-pressed on Dig 104 as Tony Allen and Barbara, this was the B-side of 'It Hurts Me So'. Allen first cut the song as Tony Allen and Bobbie for the tiny Aries label which apparently was pressed only on 78rpm in the early 50s.
Allen appeared solo or with groups on many labels including Specialty, Tampa, Big Time, Jamie, Imperial, Ebb, Dot and Aladdin. In the early 60s he was produced by Johnny Otis for Bethlehem and had an album released by the Biharis on Crown. He can still be found performing at various oldie revival shows in Los Angeles and has recently appeared on Classic Artists Recordings' "Doo Wop Diner Volume 3", some of the tracks of which Ace are compiling onto a series of CDs.
Potted biographies on the other artists on this collection can be found on "Dig These Blues" Volume 2 of the Dig Story on Ace CDCHD 334.
The next volume in the series will explore many of the fine doowop recordings that Johnny Otis produced during the 50s.
Ray Topping 1992