Castin’ My Spell

The Johnny Otis Show, Capitol F4168, 1959, Pop #52

Back when Johnny Otis was growing up, there wasn’t much talk of identifying as one thing or another.

This recording covers a song written and originally recorded by the Johnson Brothers (not the Brothers Johnson, entirely different Johnson brothers who came along later). It was assembled, produced, and sung by Johnny Otis, fronting The Johnny Otis Show. It followed his big hit “Willie and the Hand Jive” and has the same beat, but this time overlaid with pulsing, repetitive phrases sung by Johnny Otis and Marci Lee. It has more to offer than the infectious “Hand Jive,” but it wasn’t nearly as big a hit.

Johnny Otis created a masterpiece with this recording, which improves on the Johnson Brothers’ original version from the same year. “Castin’ My Spell” not only has the quick close-harmony vocals over the hand-jive beat, but it is punctuated by fine electric guitar injections provided by Jimmy Nolen, who went on to play in James Brown’s fine mid-to-late sixties band.

I was telling my stepdaughter Alicia about watching the documentary Rachel Divide, about Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who claimed to be black. Even when confronted with incontrovertible proof she was white, she continued to deny it, much to the consternation of her biracial son, and to most everyone else. I had some sympathy for Ms. Dolezal, up to a point. She truly seemed to feel more natural as a black woman. But she went too far when she insisted she wasn’t white, I told Alicia. She could’ve just said that she felt more comfortable, felt more herself, living among black culture and community. “She could just say she identifies as black, and that would be acceptable,” I said.

“Oh, no,” Alicia said, “that isn’t right either. A person from a privileged race can’t just step in and ‘identify’ as a member of an oppressed race. She hasn’t earned the right to identify as black.” And that’s what a lot of the black people interviewed in the documentary said. A white person who “crosses over” can step right back into a world of privilege any time.

Back when Johnny Otis was growing up, there wasn’t much talk of identifying as one thing or another. But I imagine Johnny Otis, who was of Greek heritage (real name: Ioannes Veliotes), would’ve put his own situation that way. What he did say was, “As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black.” Unlike Rachel Dolezal, though, he never lied about his background. He just preferred the company of black people, understood the black culture better than the white, married a black woman (in 1941!), with whom he had four kids, and made his name in predominantly black music styles. He worked closely with a great number of black artists, all of whom appeared to have been totally accepting of Johnny Otis. Johnny’s mother was not so accepting.

(Mezz Mezzrow, a Jewish jazz musician who immersed himself in the black community personally and professionally in the ‘30s, didn’t write any of my favorite songs, but he did write one of my favorite memoirs, Really the Blues. It’s well worth wading through his hepcat language just to be surprised by where he goes with it. Mezz probably would’ve also said he identified as black.)

You could say, I think, that “Castin’ My Spell” is not easy to identify as black or white. Its composers were black, and its performers were black, except for Johnny Otis. But it’s as much a rockabilly number as an R&B number, and its defiance of pigeon-holing is certainly among its charms.

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