Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The white rhythm and blues star who "self-identified as black" sixty years ago

The story of Rachel Dolezal, who "self-identifies" as black, made me think of the bandleader Johnny Otis.

He did something similar back in the 1950s. This is how it's explained in his biography Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story:

In those days if a white man was going to play music with black musicians, work in black clubs and stay in "coloured" motels it would be easier to pass himself off as black.

Sometimes it was temporary. When drummer Louie Bellson joined the Duke Ellington band in 1951 he was told "we're going down South so we're making you a Haitian."


  1. Thanks for sharing that I didn't know about it. Shades of John Howard Griffin's experience in all of this too (if anyone doesn't know, he 'blackued up' using medication normally used to treat vitiligo) and lived 'as a negro' in various southern states of America in 1959/60 then published his experiences in a book "Black Like Me" which is a hell of a read. The saying that you can't understand someone until you walk a mile (or 1000) in their shoes was never better explored. Well, until some wag came along and turned it into the movie 'Soul Man' in the 80s - but let's not dumb it down...

  2. Also worth noting that Louis Bellson married Pearl Bailey in 1952, which must have been extraordinary for those times. Probably not a coincidence that they married whilst on tour in London. They were married for 28 years.