Otis! My Man!

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this, given my self-appointed role as a chronicler of fictional artists, but I only recently learned that the fictional Otis Day & The Knights have had a career extending well beyond their debut in Animal House, the classic 1978 comedy directed by John Landis and starring John Belushi among others.

In the movie, Otis Day & The Knights are an R&B group hired to play at the now-iconic toga party thrown by the members of Delta House; later, several of the students and their dates stumble across a roadhouse where the group is performing and decide to stop in for a drink (“Otis loves us!”). They don’t have much screen time — they appear for all of five or six minutes — but Otis and the band have come to embody the good-time party-without-abandon mood of Animal House.

Otis Day & The Knights perform at the Deltas’ toga party. Note a very young Robert Cray on bass.

After Animal House became a surprise box office hit, producers Ron Kurtz and Don Podolor encouraged DeWayne Jessie, the actor who appeared as Otis in the movie, to go out on tour as Otis. Finding an enduring audience for the character, Jessie later purchased the rights to the name. Even today, in 2020, he continues to perform as Otis Day & The Knights.

This is well and good. However — bear with me for a moment here as I get all dorky about something — Jessie’s now-decades-long career as Otis Day occasionally strains the fictional artist concept. For two reasons. First, the actor didn’t actually provide the singing voice for the character in Animal House — he lip-synced to recordings by Lloyd G. Willliams — so he doesn’t sound like the Otis in the movie. Also, he seems to have largely dropped the retro conceit in his post-Animal House performances, appearing in high-eighties garb in the 1986 concert video release Otis! My Man! and adopting a late-eighties R&B sound on the 1989 George Clinton-produced album Shout.

These are, of course, wildly nit-picky points important only to irredeemable geeks like myself. In the end, Jessie’s performances are really generally charming, and there’s something comforting in knowing that Otis Day & The Knights are still out there doing their thing — still shouting and still shama-lama-ding-donging.

Otis in high-eighties garb in what would have been 1969 in Animal House time

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