Otis G. Johnson

Otis G. Johnson’s family migrated out of inner-city Detroit, following Michigan Avenue into Inkster, just in time to catch first rays from the Marvelettes, soon to be a rising Motown star. When the Marvelettes bused it to Berry Gordy’s place, Johnson tagged along and shook a few hands. Although nothing came of it, he was enthralled by Motown’s offices and lively songwriting workshop, which had him dreaming of his own publishing company and record label. Gospel music, however, was his focus. Soon, Johnson landed a role with the luminescent Mattie Moss Clark and her choir. Immediately after high school, he took daytime employment as a bottle inspector for Pepsi-Cola. While that went flat, he borrowed start-up capital from his uncle and filed Michigan incorporation papers to create Manfield Music, his publishing concern, named in tribute to Curtis Mayfield.

Johnson grasped the publishing game, and that he needed to push his songs—and those of the handful of writers he recruited—to artists and producers, who might record them. But the 1960s brought little success, until he finally recorded his own song, “Call On Jesus,” and issued it on the Gold Records vanity imprint, very near the end of the decade. After pausing his recording career for another half-decade, he finally founded his own operation, Holy Spirit Records, in the mid-1970s. By then, Johnson had series of songs—“Walk With Jesus” among them—to be performed, unaccompanied, on his retrofitted Hammond M3; with skill in electronics honed daily by a new job at a Ford plant, he coaxed the organ into issuing its unique metronomic rhythms. The recorded results are an eerie, spectral interpretation of gospel’s darkest conventions. Simple praying hands on the minimalist black-on-white cover of Johnson’s confusingly named eight-song 1978 LP only serve to enhance the stark vision inscribed in its grooves.

Shortly thereafter, Johnson was contacted by singer-songwriter David Schwan, through a Manfield Music ad in Billboard. In 1979, Johnson and Schwan issued Receive The Power, an LP featuring non-collaborative work by both men, housed in a familiar custom jacket: a dusky, cloud-layered horizon. Johnson changed course at the fringe of the music business in the early 1980s, taking on a role as gospel-jock on WMUZ 103.5, while holding down that Ford factory job; meanwhile, he renamed Holy Spirit Records to the bewildering Aspro (truncated, apparently, from “Ask A Pro”). After years of intermittent work, Johnson saw a CD-era resurgence that continues today, alongside retirement from Ford and subsequent relocation in the early 2000s to Nashville’s friendly music business environs.

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