It’s okay to admire one’s subject and to highlight accomplishments rather than failures (and to be sure, there were far more of the former in Otis’ life). And Otis genuinely deserves every accolade Lipsitz can come up with. But there’s an odd disparity between Lipsitz’ rigorously academic insistence that race colors everything in America, and the warmth with which he portrays Otis and virtually every black person mentioned in the book. The issues may be black and white, but Lipsitz’ take is relentlessly monochromatic – black is good, colorful, carefree, and bursting with creativity, while white is irredeemably cruel, oppressive, and exploitive.
Still, there’s precious little written material about Otis, and he’s had a lasting impact on American music. (Among other things, he wrote “Willie And The Hand Jive,” a bar-band staple to this day, and discovered the likes of Big Mama Thornton, Etta James, and Jackie Wilson). It may fall short of masterpiece status, but Midnight at the Barrelhouse paints a vivid portrait of one of America’s unsung musical titans and the society in which he thrived despite the odds. As a music fan, one could wish the book were weighted a little more to the musical side of things, but readers will definitely emerge with a better understanding of both Otis and the world in which he lived.