The fact isn't just how badly Sista Otis wants — nay, needs — to play music. The fact is she virtually breathes and lives music. Her life, for many years now, has consisted of little else.
Perhaps the producer of the Metro Times Blowout realized this when Sista Otis was booked to perform at the 2002 edition of the local music festival. Whatever the case, it was many Detroiters' first introduction to the amazing songstress. And as a venue headliner, she came on like a youngster with a genuine appreciation for Big Mama Thornton and a sound that blended folk, blues and rock all into one. Her hairstyle was more traditional back in those days: a short bob sitting atop her gypsy grin. And unlike so many of the female singers of then — and of now, actually — she covered her body in clothing, making the audience focus on everything that was coming from above the neck.
No one could have fully realized at that time, however, that Blowout was just a stop on a road that would lead to recent national fame on — of all places! — the stage of America's biggest and most popular karaoke contest, American Idol. Not as a contestant, mind you. But more on that later.
"I'm a lifer," Otis insists of her career and lifestyle. "I'm not doing this to get a record deal or to make all those kinds of things happen. Music is what I love to do. And I was never like, 'Hey, if this doesn't pan out, then I'm outta here.'"
Said "lifer" is preparing to play a hometown show this week, along with a slew of her favorite musicians. Otis — who's led a nomadic existence these last several years, spending little time in the Motor City — has named the May 14 event, at Rosie O'Grady's in Ferndale, the Medicine Show. It promises to be miles removed from what one sees on American Idol, though.
Otis' dress code is somewhat more rugged and sexy these days, suitably tailored to fit her spirited personality. The short haircut is now long dreads, with red tinted highlights. Since that Blowout show, she's driven across half of America in her 1994 Geo Metro, with little more than an acoustic guitar and whatever money she could muster from independent CD sales. During that time, she released a debut album, World Wide Release, that went "indie gold," as she describes it, and garnered radio play in 13 different countries. The album garnered more Detroit Music Awards nominations than any in the event's history to that date. Soon thereafter, The Advocate named her one of the "Top Indie Artists in the U.S."
Everything came to a head in the last several months, though, when Crystal Bowersox, one of the finalists and favorites to win this season's American Idol competition, cited Janis Joplin and, yes, Sista Otis as her greatest inspirations. As soon as Bowersox said those words on FOX-TV, legions of viewers hit the Internet and Google, trying to figure out exactly who this living unknown was that managed to be mentioned in the same sentence as a dead rock goddess. As Glen Campbell once told the music editor of this publication: As soon as you're on TV, everything changes.
Almost immediately, Sista Otis became one of the few current independent artists whose name is now known by millions.
Music is in the blood of Otis, who was born Marie Tinnes 29 years ago. Both of her grandmothers — Edna Mae Tinnes and Wanda "the Dancing Lady" Miazga Philip Melancon — sang jazz, toured the country vaudeville style and also danced professionally. Her father played in a band, and Otis used to listen to them practice in the family garage. She also had a singing uncle who she laughs might have been "the only homophobe ever offered an audition to understudy for Madame Butterfly."
As a result, music has been her one constant since childhood. Elvis Presley. Jerry Lee Lewis. Johnny Cash. And the aforementioned Thornton. These four names were Otis' initial muses. They injected her with a particular understanding of how music worked once it got in the bloodstream.
"When I was growing, you never heard of the hard work artists had to do to gain fame," Otis says, sitting in the upper deck of the New Dodge in Hamtramck. "But these days, everyone and everything's more manufactured."
Otis left home for the first time about 13 years ago, moving to Los Angeles. She hated it. The place was "disingenuous," she says. She then went north to San Francisco with next to nothing in her pocket, settling in a hobo community in Golden Gate Park. She was young but destitute and literally had to play music for her supper. She returned to Detroit soon thereafter when whatever future in the Golden State had fizzled. She worked odd jobs around the city for a while but grew tired of working for others.
That's when she decided to hit the road. Otis sold all of her possessions in 2004, bought that Geo Metro for $800 ... and logged onto openmike.org, a website that, at the time, was a popular database that tracked open mic nights at clubs, bars and coffeehouses around the country. Guitar in hand, with no place to live and no permanent destination, she bounced around, heading for any place that'd give her a stage and a few minutes on it. She hasn't rented a space to live in since then.
"I wanted to create a home wherever I went," she says. "And every place I go now, it's like home. I've got places to stay. I cook dinners together with friends. And I don't have to worry about staying in hotels." She's befriended people in places like Nashville and Knoxville. And she stayed in post-Katrina New Orleans for three months, singing songs to uplift the spirits of at least 300 people a day at St. Mary of Angels School in the lower Ninth Ward, the heart of the city where the levies broke and the devastation was the worst.
"You could drive down the street, and there'd be a house right in the middle of the street," she sighs. "And there were no children anywhere. You didn't see one child in town. You know what? To be honest with you, it looked a lot like Detroit. But we had our 'hurricane' 30 years ago and nobody came to help us clean it up."
Otis' stance in New Orleans was part musician, part activist. But the glut of corrupt politics — and a constant suspicion that federal informants lurked in the city, fucking with grassroots organizational efforts — convinced her that her greatest opportunity was still in music. So it was back in the old Geo. And back on the road.
At some point, Otis played a bar in Chicago, which is AI finalist Bowersox's hometown. The latter saw Otis' performance, but the two never actually met. In fact, it was a guy at a show in Tampa, Fla., who told Otis that he'd driven hours to see her perform solely because Bowersox gave her the shout-out on the show. The two singers have spoken and texted constantly since, of course, and Otis finally flew to Hollywood and sat in the Idol audience one night with a sign that read "Mama Sox and Sista Otis say Save New Orleans."
The road has yielded good fortune at almost every turn for Otis. She played the cast and crew party in Hollywood for The Dark Knight Batman flick and was even a special guest of Little Richard onstage at the Grand Ole Opry. She's working on a new album with Norwood, the bass player of L.A. funk-punk pioneers Fishbone. They're currently recording at King Sound Studios in L.A. Their original meeting happened during a low point for Otis, in 2009.
"My car broke down in L.A.," she says. "And that car was my home at the time. I was sleeping in it." She had the vehicle towed to a nearby auto shop whose owner happened to work on celebrity's vehicles. He knew Norwood, heard Otis' material, and offered to hook them up. While she was there, she went down to Venice Beach, played some music for the tourists and regulars there, and raised enough money to gas the now-repaired Metro through a tour of the Northeast.
Needless to say, it's been one interesting road. "I've eaten in soup kitchens," she says. "Slept in shelters. Called a piece of cardboard behind a gas station 'home.' Played street music in almost every major city in the U.S. and worked my way into getting better gigs. They've put my face in magazines. My music has been on the radio. And I managed to tour nonstop nationally in a Geo Metro! And now one of the biggest stars in the national spotlight has told the nation that I'm one of her main influences." She pauses, "It hasn't always been fun. But it's always been an adventure."
Sista Otis' Medicine Show, Friday, May 14, at Rosie O'Grady's, 279 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-591-9163. With performances by Sugar Spell, Hundred Miles, Mike Dorn, the Questions, Marcus, the Rue Moor Counts, Konniption Fit, DJ JAH Sunshine, the Phantom Shakers, Bill McGettigan & Tony Berci, Root Hespa (Hoola Hoops & Combat boots), Identity Theft, Susan Sunshine and Miss Violet.Khary Kimani Turner is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]