Little Green Bag

George Baker Selection, Colossus C 112, 1969, #21 Pop

“Little Green Bag” is one crazy little international record. It was a 1970 debut release by George Baker Selection that became a hit in the US. But George Baker was actually Johannes Bouwens, of the Netherlands, where the song was recorded. Mr. Bouwens cowrote the song with Jan Visser. The song reached #1 in Japan, has been used as a theme song on a South American soap opera, was covered by Italians and Canadians, and has been heard on British and Turkish television programs. A Spanish-language song, “Paloma Blanca,” was George Baker Selection’s only other top hit.

And who knows what the repetitive lyrics are about? Who cares?

The music of “Little Green Bag” is eccentric, to say the least, and very modishly entertaining, with amped-up bass riffs, twelve-string guitars, and percussion galore. Burt Bacharach meets the Tijuana Brass. The vocals are the epitome of grooviness. When I listen to it, I’m seeing lots of sideburns, tinted prescription glasses, mustard-colored Apache scarves, and large-pane plaid flairs. And somehow, for the duration of this song, that’s a good thing.

And who knows what the repetitive lyrics are about? Who cares?The Netherlandish, Eurovision kind of air about the song may go a long way toward explaining why it seems one-of-a-kind in the US pop pantheon, but still I’m thinking “Little Green Bag,” in all its demented pop frivolity, should’ve led to a profusion of Euro-pop-rockers on our charts. The group ABBA, which won the Eurovision contest one year, doesn’t count. Their string of slick, saccharine megahits were so ubiquitous in ‘70s American pop that they were a key element in defining what seventies American pop was. Not like the previous decade’s British Invasion groups, which always seemed to counter American beach pop, Motown, and hippie music rather than meld with it.

Like so many other records in my collection, the unclassifiability of “Little Green Bag” is its primary asset.

Baby, We’re Really in Love

Hank Williams with His Drifting Cowboys, MGM K11100, 1951, #4 Country

My Aunt Kay had left a few 78 rpm records at her parents’ house—my Grandpa and Grandma Wilson’s farmhouse. Grandma gave me one of them to take home: Hank Williams’ “Baby, We’re Really in Love,” with “I’d Still Want You” on the B-side. I loved both songs, and played them on my little record player often. One day, I played the record for my neighborhood friends. Donny picked it up off the turntable after we’d listened and read on the disc “This Is a Non-Breakable Record.” He said, “Non-breakable? Cool!” and tossed it against the wall, where it shattered into a dozen pieces.

no one else writes simple so perfectly

I did recently find a 45 of the record, and it sits proudly in my little collection. “Baby, We’re Really in Love” is a fine song (favorite couplet: “I run around in circles and laugh at fire alarms / I’m nutty as a fruitcake when you’re not in my arms”), and the flip side, “I’d Still Want You,” is just as wonderful. Of all the singer-songwriters whose work I cherish, Hanks’s songs are the ones whose value and appeal I’m least able to explain. They’re not that different in substance from countless other three-chord songs with catchy hooks. I think: so simple—anyone could write that stuff! They are simple, yes—but no one else writes simple so perfectly. The best of his songs are like elements: They are basic but solid and unimprovable. And it doesn’t have to be Hank delivering them. Great covers have been recorded by singers outside the C&W field. I think of Tony Bennett’s “Cold, Cold Heart” (or Norah Jones’ version), Ray Charles’ “You Win Again” and “Hey, Good Lookin’,” Al Green’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Two of Hank’s best involve trains. I, like so many others, have always felt the mystique of trains (although I’ve only traveled by train once, long, long ago), possibly because my dad and both of my grandfathers worked for the railroad. That used to be a much more common occupation than it is these days. (Kinda like a kid today saying, “My dad and both of my grandpas are computer programmers.”)

“(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle” (the Hank hit that preceded “Baby, We’re Really in Love”) and “Ramblin’ Man,” which Hank recorded as Luke the Drifter, are train songs, but trains have little to do with my preference for them. Trains, though, may have inspired Hank to do some of his best work, a major-key song and a minor-key song that both convey a regretful resignation to fate. “I can settle down and be doin’ just fine / ‘til I hear an old freight rollin’ down the line…”

A friend recently bought an anthology of Hank Williams’ Luke the Drifter songs. In the liner notes, the song “Just Waitin’” was credited to “Bob Gazzaway of Happy, Texas.” My friend knew that my wife’s maiden name is Gazzaway, and I knew that an uncle of hers had prepared a nice genealogy of the family. I checked it out and was able to find a Bobby Rankin Gazzaway who had lived with his family in Happy, Texas. This had to be Hank’s collaborator, and it turns out that he and my wife’s grandpa Homer were cousins. When I told my father-in-law this news, he was pleasantly surprised (although, he says, he was never much of a Hank Williams fan). He then said that many years back there’d been a rumor that a Gazzaway had written a lot of Hank’s songs and not received any credit.

Among Hank Williams’ stellar output, “Just Waitin’” is no great shakes. It’s a narrative song, with Hank speaking over a basic repeated 1-4-5-1 pattern. Its simple message is that everybody’s just waitin’ on something, and never gettin’ anything done. A series of examples drive the point home. “The farmer’s daughter’s just waitin’ for the travelin’ salesman to take her into town / The city slicker’s just waitin’ for the country boy to lay all his money down.”

But here’s to Bob Gazzaway. I’m just waitin’ to hear the whole story about how he crossed paths with the great Hank Williams. Or maybe how he and Hank were longtime pals who wrote songs together, but the evil Hank stole all of Bob’s credit and royalties, leaving him to languish, unhappy, in Happy, Texas.

Cab Driver

The Mills Brothers, Dot 17041, 1968, #23 Pop

Just to say that something is hip marks one as being unhip. Even hipsters don’t say things are hip. (What do they say? I’m happy to say I’m too out of it to know.)

Some people, I realize, do not think The Mills Brothers were cool.

The least-hip thing Peter, Paul, and Mary ever did was record “I Dig Rock and Roll Music.” It was 1967, Rock music had supplanted folk music, and the trio wasn’t any too pleased about that. Paul co-wrote the song, which is a combination pandering exercise and critique of The Mamas and the Papas, The Beatles, and others who had taken PP&M’s spots on the charts. Sure enough, the song got them on the pop charts, at number nine.

The late sixties and early seventies were a tough time for folkies, and were even worse for the pre-rock acts whose labels were struggling to remain hip. Rock-song covers by Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and other Golden-Era warblers make up a goodly portion of the tracks on later album anthologies of bad covers. The Mills Brothers had to line up in the rock-song queue, too. They covered “I Dig Rock and Roll Music,” accompanied by Count Basie and his Orchestra. I know they probably were forced by some A&R guy to include it, a promo man who really believed he could connect the Brothers to the hip set. I presume that they emphatically did not dig rock ‘n’ roll music, but I still thought it was pretty dang groovy. So incongruous that it truly was hip.

Some people, I realize, do not think The Mills Brothers, John, Herbert, Harry, and Don, were cool. Others concede that they were at least somewhat cool in their early days, the thirties. They were jazz then and hadn’t yet been exiled to the easy listening category. I love the ‘30s songs of The Mills Brothers—“Sweet and Slow,” “I’ve Found a New Baby,” “Rockin’ Chair.” That earliest era may qualify as cool music because it was long-enough ago that it has some retro cachet. And, well, it is really great stuff. I also love their big hits of the ‘40s and ‘50s, like “Paper Doll” and “Glow Worm” and “Lazy River,” but by that time they were a little too MOR, alongside rising R&B and jump-swing artists. I’m afraid the Mills Brothers’ “Glow Worm” would’ve been driven off the stage pretty quickly if Louis Jordan & His Tympani Five had cranked up “Saturday Night Fish Fry.”

After that came their leisure-suit era and the big 1968 easy-listening hit “Cab Driver,” with its snap-along “do-doot-‘n’-do-doot” parts. I love this late stuff, too! It was in this waning period that the Brothers recorded “I Dig Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.”

I had the opportunity to see The Mills Brothers at The Venetian Room when I was in my early twenties. The Venetian Room was at the Fairmont Hotel in Downtown Dallas. (“Downtown Dallas” was a magical place to me when I was a kid. My mom told me that when our family was traveling I’d get homesick and say, “I wanna go to Downtown Dallas.” No matter that we didn’t live downtown, or even in Dallas; we lived in a suburb. But I wanted to go home to Downtown Dallas.)

In 1969, when the Venetian Room opened, I was a teenager too young to appreciate their brand of entertainer. The Venetian and its ilk were very, very un-hip. I was listening to a lot of Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane and Mungo Jerry while Tony Bennett and Lou Rawls and Miss Peggy Lee were gracing that local stage. Within twenty years, as times changed, the Venetian discontinued its big-name line-ups. The Dallas history journal Legacies quotes Tina Turner, who performed there in the ‘80s, as saying the place had become “a graveyard for burnt-out entertainers.”

I did see two classic shows there in the late ‘70s, though, thanks to the fact that my friend and bandmate Wildcat had parents who were big on seeing lounge shows. They had become fast friends with my parents while coming to see Wildcat and me on gigs. Our first excursion to The Venetian was to see Ella Fitzgerald, aging and frail but still warbling like a schoolgirl. The second was The Mills Brothers, also toward the end of their many-decade performing careers. (They had singles out from 1931 to 1968!)

I had passed on seeing The Police live in order to see the Brothers Mills. I was torn about it at the time, but I know now that I made the right choice. After all, four decades later I still see Sting everywhere I look. Is Sting hip? I think not. He plays Celtic Woman music!

The Mills Bro’s—they’re the hip ones. As I recall, they did a hip-as-all-get-out rendition of “Cab Driver” that night. (It was their last hit, after all; well, there was one later that year that got to #83 called “The Ol’ Race Track,” but do you remember that one at all? I thought not).

So I put on the 45 of “Cab Driver” now and then and revel in our mutual unhipness as the Brothers croon: “Cab driver, take me ‘round the block.”

The Things I Love

The Fidelity’s, Baton 252, 1958, #60 Pop

Once I had had discovered my musical kinship with The Ink Spots, it was only a matter of time before I revisited The Platters. “Only You,” a favorite of mine, was the first collaboration between The Platters and their manager, the song’s writer, Buck Ram. It was the first of their many hits (although their follow-up “The Great Pretender” was the first to hit number one). Tony Williams was to The Platters what Bill Kenny was to The Ink Spots: a strong, melodramatic tenor to lead them to pop glory. And his vocal gymnastics turn “Only You,” a mediocre love song, into a love-drenched classic. (And from the sublime to the ridiculous: The B-side was a ditty called “Bark, Battle, and Ball,” a take-off on “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” Obviously, the group hadn’t yet figured out their path.)

Can one do this type of song nowadays without it automatically being labeled kitsch?

The other Platters tune I perform is “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” at least partly because it’s the only pop song I know that contains the word “chaff.”

Once I’d added some Platters into my repertoire, I sought similar songs from their contemporaries. The most similar—and the best—is The Fidelity’s “The Things I Love.”
This sentimental big-band favorite, written by Harold Barlow and Lewis Harris and introduced by Jimmy Dorsey in 1941, is a love song couched in observations of the natural things the singer loves: sunset’s glow, fireflies at play, nodding tulips—and, of course, a lady’s “sweet voice” and “lovely eyes.” The version by The Fidelity’s (their apostrophe, not mine) was released in 1958. It is a soaring, gorgeous melody. The repetitive nature of most songs of the doo-wop era made songs revived from earlier eras, with their less predictable chord patterns, stand out. (Although, at a peak of only #60 on the Billboard pop chart, you couldn’t really say that this one stood out very much.)

The group is augmented on this recording by the Teacho Wiltshire Orchestra. “Teacho Wiltshire” is my second-favorite showbiz name, even above Hermes Pan, Blossom Dearie, and Harry Reasoner. My favorite showbiz name is Minto Cato. Ms. Cato was a singer/dancer who introduced “Memories of You” in the Broadway show Blackbirds of 1930. The song was written by Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf. That’s another couple of great showbiz names. (And Minto, who went with Razaf for a while, could have become Minto Cato Razaf—wow!) The Fidelity’s Platters platter stayed at the lower reaches of the Billboard charts, and further attempts at hits fizzled, but lead vocalist Emmitt Smith makes “The Things I Love” a record that The Platters would’ve been proud to have in their repertoire, right alongside “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “The Great Pretender,” and “Only You.” Emmitt is right up there with Tony and Bill.

Can one do this type of song nowadays without it automatically being labeled kitsch? Has anyone in the past sixty years pulled off anything in this vein outside of an oldies show on public television? Who were the successors to The Ink Spots and The Platters, hugely popular groups who seem to have influenced nobody at all? And why are The Fidelity’s and their wonderful cover of “The Things I Love” all but forgotten?

There Is a Mountain

Donovan, Epic 5-10212, 1967, #11 Pop

In high school, I wanted so badly to be a hippie. I was a hopelessly suburban, pimply, awkward kid, but I listened to The Doors and Jefferson Airplane, and every day when I got to school, I combed my hair to make the part on the opposite side so it would look longer. My most promising entrée into hippiedom was my acquaintance with two hippie chicks who were in the high school choir with me. Hippie chicks in choir. Somehow that was possible back then.

It’s the bongos and the flute riffs that make “There Is a Mountain” a great record.

Ellen was gorgeous, with long, strawberry blonde hair parted in the middle. She wore granny dresses and didn’t have a Texas accent. She was like a California girl inexplicably sprouted in Richardson, Texas, defiantly West Coast. Her best friend Pam wasn’t gorgeous, but she was earthy and smart. Both of her parents were doctors-of-something-or-other. She wore leather fringed jackets and short skirts. Ellen and Pam spoke to each other in lingo only they understood, and often burst into laughter together. I so wanted to be in on their jokes that I would try to laugh heartily in just the right places.

At a choir party, I sat between Pam and Ellen on the floor. Most of the kids were doing the standard-fare teasing and giggling, and occasionally someone would loudly sing a Latin phrase from one of the songs we were rehearsing at the time, and other parts would join in. I sensed that Pam and Ellen were restless and looking for an opportunity to duck out. I did not want to be left behind in choral land.

Ellen leaned over to me and asked, “Are you a head?”

Somehow, I understood instantly that this was the crucial question that could determine my worthiness to be a hippie dude alongside the hippie chicks. But I was taken off guard. Was she asking whether I was ahead? Ahead of what? Or was “head” short for something, maybe egghead? “What do you mean?” I replied.

It was the worst possible response. I should’ve just replied “yes,” and seen where that led. Or I could’ve been a little sharper and deduced that “head” was short for pothead, a term I’d read in Rolling Stone and Eye but had never heard an RHS classmate utter.

“Never mind,” Ellen said as she and Pam rose and slipped out a side door. I haplessly added a tenor part as my choirmates sang “Redemptori, Domino, puerulo jacenti in praesepio…”

Of all the Summer of Love hippie musicians, the one I most wanted to emulate was Donovan. After all, we had the same last name, kind of, and I could play all his songs on my acoustic guitar and impersonate him pretty well.

Donovan Leitch’s folkie beginnings, featuring his earnest voice and his plucked acoustic guitar, just didn’t interest me. But when he got hippie-psychedelic on “Sunshine Superman,” I became a Donovan fan. Most of his twee lyrics don’t date well, but the record production made several of them timeless. The organ, vibes, and mellotron rescue “Wear Your Love Like Heaven.” Without the fuzz guitar and tremolo, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is barely a song at all. “Epistle to Dippy” features Donovan’s affected vocal, as he delivers precious off-accent lines like “Looking through crys-tull spec-tickles.” But the record, thanks to its production, overwhelms the dippy vocals with trippy cello. Yes, “trippy cello” is a thing, thanks to this record.

It’s the bongos and the flute riffs that make “There Is a Mountain” a great record. That isn’t to say bongos and flutes could make any song appealing to me—I can instantly think of a dozen that wouldn’t benefit from that addition. (An accordion, on the other hand, could improve any record.) “There Is a Mountain” seems the ideal song to play at a hippie love fest, where attendees often have recorders and bongos anyway, and groovy heads swirl and twirl along to the repetitive rhythms and mumbo-jumbo lyrics about caterpillars and snails.

When I used to hear “There Is a Mountain,” I’d slip into fantasies of frolicking in a sylvan meadow, recorder in hand, with Pam and Ellen, an equally hip friend sitting on a stump playing bongos. We’d be singing along, nearly ecstatic, and then fall to the ground at the end of the song—just as KLIF-AM DJ Jimmy Rabbit would interrupt with a promo and break the spell. I no longer have that fantasy when I spin this record, but I do lapse into a few subdued groovy moves by verse two, and by the third verse I’m almost a hippie wannabe again.

You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover

Bo Diddley, Checker 1019, 1962, #48 Pop and #21 R&B

I remember hearing this overpowering song when it came out in 1962. Even on my parents’ crappy, tinny car radio it blew my little nine-year-old mind. I imagine I’d heard other Bo Diddley hits—“Diddley Daddy,” “Hey Bo Diddley,” “Who Do You Love?”—by that time, but this one hit me so hard it rattled me. All these decades later, when I spin the 45, I still get a little rattled. The guitar rocks, the bass rolls, and those maracas are relentless! “I look like a farmer but–I’m a lover!” You go, Bo.

I came across a copy of the single in the late seventies. My record’s label has a printing error: The title, split into two lines, reads “A Book By The Cover / You Can’t Judge.” Does that flaw make this a sought-after, rare collectible? Not so much. It’s a bit more valuable than the correctly printed version, but my copy’s pretty scratchy anyway. So it’s merely a nice curiosity piece. And it’s a good little time-waster to imagine melodies and rhythms into which the stilted phrase would fit.

It’s a late Diddley hit, one of the few Bo did that he didn’t write. That credit goes to ace blues songwriter Willie Dixon, and this number is all about that bass, which Dixon plays on the song, caroming above and below and around Bo Diddley’s slashing guitar chords, propelling the song to and through the fade. (The record’s producer was Ralph Bass, but he no doubt pronounced his last name to rhyme with ass.)

“You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” doesn’t feature the trademark Bo Diddley beat, but it is unmistakable Bo Diddley, and it sits right up there with his best. He only had one more single, “Ooh Baby,” on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and it just barely slipped in at #88 in 1966. I enjoy a song he issued as a single the following year, “Wrecking My Love Life,” and count its flipside, “Boo-Ga-Loo Before You Go,” among my favorite song titles.

There is a flubbed guitar chord on one of the verses of “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover,” on a five-chord-to-four-chord move. The sticklers among us may ask, “Why didn’t they do another take?” But the sticklers may find it difficult to tolerate rock and blues and country recordings that tend to allow clinkers, out-of-tune guitar strings, and imprecise vocal lines and lyrics. There certainly is a joy in listening to the take-after-take perfection of a Steely Dan song, or the multi-layered productions of Brian Wilson, but it’s a different listening experience. The flubbed chords and cracking voices are left in some of the great rhythm & blues and country & western recordings because the feel of those moments is so good it may not be capturable again. The imperfections add to the effect, like a Cajun stew, as opposed to a French soufflé. Both tasty, but completely different sensory experiences.

Is That All There Is?

Peggy Lee, Capitol, 1969, #11 Pop and #1 Adult Contemporary

A song I put in the “Inventorying Life from the Perspective of The Golden Years” category (a growing category in my collection, alas) is the rich and strange late-career hit for Miss Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is?” This song of disillusionment gave me chills whenever I heard it on the radio in the late ‘60s.

A happily-accidental confluence of disparate characters, topped off by Miss Peggy, led to the strangest hit of 1969.

I was unfamiliar with Peggy Lee, except as the voice of the dog Darling, singing “He’s a Tramp” in Disney’s The Lady and the Tramp. When I saw her on a television variety show, looking so jaded in her platinum-blonde flip-up wig and her blue-tinted glasses as she sang “If that’s all there is, my friend, then let’s keep dancing,” I was mesmerized. I don’t think I ever watched The Lady and the Tramp again.

Back then, I hadn’t parsed the song’s elements; I just responded to its cumulative effect. It was only years later that I discovered and appreciated the creative contributors who’d helped Miss Peggy Lee make such a powerful record. The songwriters were Leiber and Stoller, the class clowns who wrote so many Coasters comedy classics, like “Charlie Brown” and “Poison Ivy.” (On the 45’s label, Leiber’s name is spelled the way I, a German student in high school, always want to spell it—Lieber, but he spelled it with the e-i.) They took quite a diversion from their usual fare for this one. An as-yet-little-known Randy Newman, doing journeyman work for Warner Brothers, crafted the eerie string arrangement, a sound for which he would later be lauded on albums like Sail Away and soundtracks like Ragtime. Randy Newman’s arrangement owes more than a little to Kurt Weill’s German theater period. A happily-accidental confluence of disparate characters, topped off by Miss Peggy, led to the strangest hit of 1969.

The record did lose its charm for me for a few years in the nineties. While processing books and records in the backroom of the Half Price Books main store, employees got to play music on an ancient stereo. A co-worker and I came across a 45 of the song and put it on. We were so captivated by it that we played it again and again, until our fellow employees ganged up on us and banned “Is That All There Is?” from backroom play forever. Now, years later, I can play it in my home whenever I want to, which is about twice a year, on Saturday evenings as the sun goes down.

Gordon Jenkins and Frank Sinatra (and songwriter Ervin Drake) were responsible for a similar fine sixties song about growing old, the unlikely pop hit “It Was a Very Good Year.” It appeared on the September of My Years album. Sinatra was fifty years old at the time. (Fifty is September? I think that’s still July, or maybe even June).

When, as a kid, I heard “It Was a Very Good Year” on the radio, it was haunting. Even though the lyrics are more wistful than melancholy, the Jenkins string arrangement, which got him a Grammy, joined Sinatra’s stark delivery to set a very somber tone. (That tone was pastiched to great effect in the 1971 TV special Diana! by a pre-teen Michael Jackson, who sashayed out, coat slung over his shoulder, fedora at a tilt, and sang, “When I was six years old / It was a very good year.” He also managed to throw in a “ring-a-ding-ding.”)

Michael only made it to fifty. The September of his years. Kurt Weill, who wrote the music for Maxwell Anderson’s “September Song” lyric “But the days grow short, when we reach September,” died at the age of fifty.

Miss Peggy Lee made it to the age of 81 and performed, though in poor health and sometimes confined to a wheelchair, into her seventies. You can find a video clip of her at age 64, being interviewed by Merv Griffin on his show in 1984. She wears all black, including a bolero hat and a veil, and she doesn’t get up from the couch when she performs “Is That All There Is?” The camera pulls back at one point to show her seated alone at the end of the big couch. Merv sits at his desk and leans toward Miss Peggy, chin on knuckles, mesmerized by the performance, truly a rarity on variety/talk show TV.

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.