The bandleader born John Veliotes may not have troubled the UK charts since the mid- 50s, but he’s been a respected figure in the US for close to 70 years – and not just for his music-related achievements. Through his newspaper columns and political activism, Otis became a lynchpin of the civil rights movement, a staunch opponent of racial discrimination.
He started playing drums as a teenager in the swing orchestras of the 30s, quickly developing his own “barrelhouse” style of rhythm and blues, and made headlines by putting together a string of desegregated bands in the immediate post-war years. Lipsitz tells evocative tales of Otis fighting prejudice in the entertainment industry, while also campaigning for better living and working conditions, not just for blacks, but for all immigrant communities (his own parents settled in the US from their Greek homeland).
There are eye-opening stories of his early championing of future stars such as Etta James and Jackie Wilson, of his relentless drive to break down barriers of colour, and of a nation undergoing seismic shifts. In broader terms, Lipsitz has written a detailed and thought-provoking social history, using the power and passion of one man as a pro-active barometer signalling far reaching change.