‘Jimmy’ Otey Jr., local musical legend, always put family first

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James C. “Jimmy” Otey

The late Louise Patton, a longtime educator, was James C. “Jimmy” Otey’s first grade teacher at Johnson Elementary. This photo was taken at the 2010 African American Heritage Society’s annual Black Tie Affair when Otey and his band, The New Imperials, were the feature entertainers for the evening.

James Charles “Jimmy” Otey Jr., a musical icon who was once a part of Franklin’s African American community, died on Sept. 4.  

Otey, 73, was a drummer but also played the saxophone and piano with the likes of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Taj Mahal and other musical giants as well as local bands.

Otey is preceded in death by his parents, James C “Bear” and Alberta Otey, his wife and “high school sweetheart,” Jeanette Boyd Otey, and sons Jaymes and Keith Otey. He is survived by his son Bernard and daughter Sheerica Otey, three grandchildren, Dai, Keith Jr. and Jaymes Otey, and many relatives and friends.

Otey was raised in the Natchez community of Franklin. He attended Johnson Elementary School and Franklin Training School, renamed Natchez High School in 1962, and was a member of the class of 1964.

“He was my boyfriend when we were 10,” said Thelma Battle, a local African American histo-rian. That lasted until he met Jeanette Boyd when they were both 14. “After he met Jeanette, we stayed friends.”

He and Jeanette were married for 51 years. 

“We fell in love and never were apart after that,” Otey said in a Feb. 8 interview with the Ten-nessee Ledger.

The cement block house where Otey grew up still stands on Strahl Street and sometimes, on hot summer nights, if one listens closely, music can be heard coming from the front porch. As a young child, before he picked up his first drum sticks, Otey spent summer evenings hanging around the porch of Morton’s Grocery, where local musicians gathered to play. 

“They’d get together on Friday and Saturday nights, not all the time, but some times,” he said in Battle’s book “Natchez Street, Revisited.” “I saw then, that was a way to make money.”

In 1956, a then-10-year old Jimmy Otey heard a recording of James Brown singing his new hit, “Please, Please” and discovered his own beat. He started with drums, since his hands were al-ways drumming surfaces. The Otey porch soon became another music scene in the community as he worked to perfect his sound, often resulting in a visit from the Franklin Police, Battle recalled.  

If Otey was inspired by James Brown, he was motivated by his father and other musicians in the neighborhood. But it was local music teachers who guided him. He learned to read music from Jesse Palmer Walker at Johnson Elementary School, learned to play the saxophone from high school music teacher James P “JP” Watkins, who also introduced him to classical music, according to “Natchez Street, Revisited.”

Otey was invited to play his first official gig when he was 12. According to  “Natchez Street, Revisited,” the drummer for The Cheers Band left in the middle of a Saturday night performance at the nearby Morning Star Night Club. The band’s guitar player, Cecil Dennie, and piano player, Leslie Woodson, showed up at the Otey home to ask Otey’s parents if the youngster could finish the performance that night. They agreed with the stipulation his father went with him.

Otey overwhelmed them with his talent and the band invited him to join the group. Otey’s par-ents agreed, again with stipulations: no school night performances, he couldn’t miss Sunday church service at Shorter Chapel A.M.E. and his father would accompany him to every perfor-mance. For two years, Otey traveled across Tennessee with the band and his father.

During their high school years, Battle played the E-flat horn, Pearlette Kinnard Green played clarinet and Otey played the drums and saxophone in the marching band.

“Jimmy was very musically talented, he had the gift,” said Green, a childhood friend who also played in a jazz band with Otey. “He could play by ear. We had a jazz band with four or five of us. We played at school basketball games. We knew early on he was going to do something big. He was a good student, too. He had a special gift, a good personality and he was smart.”

Otey learned to play a variety of music genres from blues to jazz, classical to rock ’n’ roll, country to rap. He also learned from an early age to have a back-up plan.

Music wasn’t steady work, and by his early 20s, he had a family to feed. Otey earned a bache-lor’s degree and a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Michigan and found a steady job at a Nashville ink company. 

In later years, he was a MTA driver by day and, until a recent illness forced him to slow down, continued to perform gigs on Nashville’s music row with his band, The New Imperials. In 2010, Otey and The New Imperials were the featured entertainment at the African American Heritage So-ciety’s annual Black Tie Affair.

Otey never got caught up in the fame and glory of the music business. He remained grounded in the values of God and family, which he learned from his parents. God and family came before music. Whether performing in Los Angeles, Las Vegas or in Europe, within every contract he in-cluded the stipulation he be flown back home to his family in Nashville whenever there was a break, even if it was just for a day or two.

“I didn’t want to be one of those musicians that started off with a family and lost it because I was gone all the time,” he told the Ledger. While Otey enjoyed traveling with the big guns, he pre-ferred playing at the R&B clubs along Jefferson Street in Nashville and returning home each night to his family. He also never missed a chance to proudly announce his hometown was Franklin.

“Wherever he traveled, Otey would tell people, ‘I’m from Franklin,’” Green said.

Otey’s funeral was held on Sept. 12 at Clark Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville. 

Carole Robinson may be contacted at crobinson@williamsonherald.com.

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