Midnight at the Barrelhouse, named after one of the first songs Johnny Otis recorded, isn’t a typical biography. Purporting to tell “The Johnny Otis Story,” it does indeed provide the basic biographical details of Otis’ life. But by focusing incessantly on racial issues, Lipsitz allows himself to get a little carried away, to a point where Otis himself occasionally seems little more than a convenient scaffold for Lipsitz to build his own arguments upon.
It’s a slippery slope. Otis, the son of Greek Immigrants (he was born John Veliotes), lived his life, for all intents and purposes, as a black man. Immersed in black culture, surrounded by black musicians, he himself fought tirelessly for racial justice. Musician, composer, and bandleader only begin to touch on the man’s talents and accomplishments. He co-owned the Barrelhouse nightclub of titular fame, hosted both a long-running radio show and a network television show, and authored four books. He taught university courses and, as an ordained preacher, led a congregation in his own church. And through it all, he considered himself ‘black by choice.” Shaped by his own experiences as a member of a widely-despised ethnic group, Otis was a passionate advocate for equality.
All of which makes race an admittedly unavoidable issue in Otis’ life. And when he’s addressing racial issues — whether directly, as they affected Otis, or whether dealing with the larger issues of inequality and injustice as they shaped American society — Lipsitz writes with an elegant clarity. A professor of Black Studies and Sociology at the University Of California, Santa Barbara, he’s undeniably eloquent when dealing with discrimination and oppression, and there’s no mistaking his outrage – the book is peppered with references to a ‘white supremist society,” and there’s an undercurrent of anger, never too far below the surface, permeating the pages.
But Lipsitz is better at the abstract than at the personal; his prose is markedly more tentative when dealing with Otis and his acquaintances as individuals. Clearly at home in academia, Lipsitz manages to keep history interesting, with startling statistics and eyewitness accounts painting a convincing portrait of an America mired in systemic racism. He’s less convincing, however, when discussing Otis’ musical life and ministerial endeavors. His descriptions of music and musicians are often awkward, his prose prosaic at best, and the character sketches don’t really come to life. And his discussion of Otis’ political and religious activities seems almost sycophantic; Lipsitz tries a little too hard to legitimize Otis’ rather fuzzy theology. (Well-intentioned though it unquestionably was, his church, in practice, was really more social agency than religious institution).