Meet Sista Otis and the Wholly Rollers (I Believe Sista is a BetteHead)

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Soulful voice gets Sista Otis named, noticed
Times Herald

ROCK ON, SISTA: Sista Otis, center, and the Wholly Rollers are playing at 6:50 p.m. Saturday as part of Downtown River Groove in downtown Port Huron.

For someone who radiates both hippie and hip-hop sensibility, Sista Otis’ musical hero may seem like an odd choice. But what Otis loves about Bette Midler is her ability to transcend classification.

“She goes through all these different styles of songs,” Otis, 31, said. “It’s very schizophrenic, but it’s very cohesive at the same time.

“It’s like the Hindu religion. One God, but different aspects of God.”

Like Midler and Hinduism, Otis and her band, the Wholly Rollers, are tough to pin down. Elements of rock, hip hop, blues, Motown, soul, funk and folk all bubble up through the music.

“I wouldn’t want to get trapped in playing one kind of music. That’s not who I am,” said Otis, who is performing Saturday at Downtown River Groove in Port Huron.

The story of Sista Otis is seeped in the stuff of Detroit legend. It starts with a young girl growing up in the suburbs, waiting for her dad to come home from his job on the GM bumper line covered in grease and sweat.

“My dad would rehearse in the garage with his band and the neighbors would come over and watch him. I just thought that was what people did,” said Otis, who was born Shawn Tinnes.

She says she got her name in a Philadelphia speakeasy at 4:30 a.m. An Otis Redding song was playing, she was singing along, and a 6-foot-2 cross-dresser told her, “Girl, they should call you Otis with a soulful voice like that.”

Next stop is on a bus in San Francisco, where Otis had been playing on the streets for months. She sat down next to an elderly black woman. They discovered they both were from Detroit. They talked about the city, its spirit, its music, and Otis decided to come back home.

“I feel like, mystically, I was directed back here because I let the spirit lead me rather than doing what was logical,” she said. “When I came back to Detroit, everything just popped for me.”

She and the band have sold 1,500 copies of their latest CD, Worldwide Release. They received a record 16 nominations at the 2004 Detroit Music Awards and won two.

“Best pop-rock recording and best hip-hop recording for the same album, which is really beautiful,” Otis said. “It means we were accepted by both communities.

“It’s really a blend of those two styles. We bring the rock and hip hop together.”

Kid Rock makes the same claim, but Sista Otis and the Wholly Rollers don’t sound much like him. In fact, they don’t sound much like anything.

“If I write a line or a riff that sounds too close to anything else, I scrap it,” said Otis of Hamtramck.

Her next move is to take New York, but she’s not ready to sign with the next label that comes calling.

“Art and business are like oil and water,” she said. “If you’re going to marry those two together, it’s got to be a partner you can believe in and believes in you, just like finding someone to be in love with. It’s an intense commitment.”

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