Born: December 28, 1921 in Vallejo, California
Died: January 17, 2012 in Altadena, California
Johnny Otis was one of the all-time great "jack of all trades" to hit the early rhythm and blues scene of the 1940s and '50s. The California-born talent was a skilled songwriter, a singer and musician of note, a producer, bandleader, and much more. If only for his role in bringing a young Etta James to the charts, Otis's reputation would be assured, but his contributions to the blues and R&B worlds through the years left a legacy that few artists could match. As a songwriter, Otis contributed gems such as "So Fine," "Every Beat of My Heart," and the classic "Willie and the Hand Jive" to the R&B world, while his work with artists as diverse as James, Big Mama Thornton, Hank Ballard, and Jackie Wilson, among others, would influence a generation of R&B artists.
Becoming Johnny Otis
Born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes in 1921 to Greek immigrant parents, Veliotes changed his name to "Johnny Otis" as a teenager to better fit in with the black neighborhood that he grew up in and where his father owned a grocery store. Although he was white, Otis felt more comfortable with African-Americans, and he lived both his personal and professional lives as part of the black community. In his 1968 book Listen to the Lambs, Otis wrote, "As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black."
Music would become Otis's passion, and after teaching himself drums, he began his music career as a drummer with the West Oakland-based Count Otis Matthew's House Rockers, a jazz swing band. After a few years of playing with various swing bands, Otis moved to Los Angeles in 1943 at the recommendation of singer Nat "King" Cole, where he joined Harlan Leonard's Kansas City Rockets. By 1945, Otis was leading his own big band when he scored his first hit, "Harlem Nocturne." Aside from leading his own band, Otis also played drums behind R&B stars Wynonie Harris and Charles Brown.
The Rhythm & Blues Age
Otis was a visionary even at a young age, and realizing that the big band era was coming to an end, he cut his band down to nine members, including a smaller horn section. The Johnny Otis Orchestra was one of the most popular outfits on the West Coast during the early 1950s, scoring better than a dozen R&B chart hits, among them songs like "Mistrustin' Blues," "Cupid's Boogie," and "Double Crossing Blues." Cashing in on his success, the singer formed his California Rhythm & Blues Caravan, touring the country with a traveling showcase of R&B and early rock 'n' roll acts.
Otis was an entrepreneur as well, and with partner Bardu Ali, they opened the first R&B exclusive nightclub in 1948 in the Watts area of Los Angeles, The Barrelhouse. During the early 1950s, Otis also became a disc jockey on Long Beach radio station KFOX. His popularity as a DJ in the region eventually led to television, and Otis hosted a local variety show on TV in Los Angeles for eight years. Otis stayed busy as a musician and recording artist, as well, recording a number of sides for Mercury Records, many featuring singers that Otis had discovered like Little Esther Phillips and Mel Walker.
Etta James & Big Mama Thornton
Otis always had a keen eye for talent, and in 1954 he discovered teenaged singer Etta "Peaches" James. Otis co-wrote and produced James' first hit single, "The Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry)," and he was instrumental in establishing James' career. As an artist, Otis signed with Peacock Records, where he recorded several songs, none of which matched his earlier success. During this time, Otis also produced the hit "Hound Dog" for Big Mama Thornton, the song with which Elvis Presley would have his breakthrough hit. Otis also produced sides for Little Richard and Johnny Ace, among others, during the mid-1950s.
Otis served as A&R man for the Cincinnati-based King Records label during the late 1950s, and he is credited with discovering talents like Jackie Wilson, Sugar Pie DeSanto, and Little Willie John. He also launched his own Blues Spectrum label, recording and performing with talents like Big Joe Turner, Gatemouth Moore, Roy Milton, Charles Brown, and others. Otis scored the biggest hit of his career in 1958 with his original song "Willie and the Hand Jive," a R&B rave-up that sold over 1.5 million copies and would later be recorded by artists like Eric Clapton and George Thorogood. Around this time, Otis also had the opportunity to perform with one of his musical idols, playing drums with the Count Basie Orchestra.
In the 1960s, Otis became interested in politics and he lost a race for the California State Assembly, running under his birth name rather than the better-known "Johnny Otis." He would later become Deputy Chief of Staff for Democratic Congressman Mervyn Dymally. Otis also turned to journalism, writing his first book, Listen to the Lambs, about race and the 1965 Watts riots, in 1968. He would follow with 1993's Upside Your Head! Rhythm & Blues on Central Avenue, and as an accomplished visual artist, Otis's paintings, sculptures, and wood carvings were featured in his 1995 book, Colors and Chords – The Art of Johnny Otis.
During his later years, Otis slowed down a bit, but always found time for some music. With his son, the accomplished blues guitarist Shuggie Otis, who literally grew up playing in his father's bands, the elder Otis recorded The New Johnny Otis Show for Alligator Records in 1982. Moving back to northern California, Otis was the pastor of a church for a while, continued to host various radio programs, and headlined the San Francisco Blues Festival in 1990 and 2000. He would be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, and he has also been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.
Recommended Albums: Johnny Otis's career spanned so many decades and he recorded so sporadically, that a definitive discography would be a difficult undertaking. The Ace Records import The Greatest Johnny Otis Show offers 26 tracks from the 1950s and does a fine job of displaying Otis's talents as a singer, musician, and bandleader and includes performances by other artists that were part of Otis's band. The album Otis made with his son Shuggie, The New Johnny Otis Show is a more contemporary showcase for Otis's unique sound.