Johnny Otis, Pioneering R&B Singer & Bandleader, Dies at 90
Although white, he lived his life as an African-American
Johnny Otis, the white child of Greek immigrants who aligned himself with black culture and became a pioneer of rhythm & blues music, died Jan. 17 in the Los Angeles area at age 90. A cause of death was not reported. Best known as the author of the R&B staple “Willie and the Hand Jive,” Otis’ career as a singer, musician, bandleader, songwriter, producer, arranger, talent scout, author, impresario and disc jockey spanned more than six decades.
Born John Veliotes Dec. 21, 1921 in Vallejo, Calif., and raised in Berkeley, Otis grew up among African-Americans and decided early in his youth that he preferred black culture and would live his life as a member of the black community. Otis, who played drums, vibraphone and percussion, began performing with swing bands in the early 1940s and by the middle of that decade had formed his own band, which would over time include R&B stars Little Esther Phillips, Charles Brown and the Robins, who would later morph into the Coasters. Otis scored his first R&B chart-topper in 1950 with “Double Crossing Blues” on the Savoy label.
Relocating to the Los Angeles area in 1943—he would live there most of his life—Otis gravitated toward the emerging rhythm & blues style of the late ’40s and quickly established himself as a prime mover, despite the fact that virtually no other white musicians were involved with the music at that time in a performing capacity. One of his earliest hits, “Harlem Nocturne,” became an R&B staple.
Otis also had an ear for new talent and is credited with discovering several top names in the R&B genre, among them Etta James (he co-wrote and produced her first hit, “The Wallflower”), Big Jay McNeely, Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John and Hank Ballard, the latter three as a talent scout for King Records. In 1952, Otis worked with a young Little Richard, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (he produced her pre-Elvis “Hound Dog”) and Johnny Ace at the Houston-based Peacock label.
Otis started his own label, Dig Records, in 1955, but it only last a few years. His output of hit records also dried up through most of the ’50s, until he signed with Capitol Records, resulting in the massively successful “Willie and the Hand Jive” in 1958—the recording, built upon the trademark “Bo Diddley beat,” reached the Top 10 of both the R&B and pop charts and became Otis’ signature tune. Otis later disavowed his “rock ’n’ roll years,” saying his recordings of that period were creatively weak, although he stood by his biggest hit because he felt it was true to the black music tradition.
Otis continued to record into the 1960s and beyond (often as the Johnny Otis Show) and although his days on the charts ended with the ’60s, he remained a formidable presence on the R&B scene as a popular radio and television host in the L.A. area, and he continued to exert an influence through his other endeavors. One of his most famous compositions was “Every Beat of My Heart,” first recorded by the Royals and later a major hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips. In 1969 he recorded a risqué album under the name Snatch and the Poontangs. The following year he played at the Monterey Jazz Festival with Esther Phillips and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson.
Meanwhile, his son, guitarist Shuggie Otis, became a popular blues and R&B-based rock artist who often performed in tandem with his father. Johnny Otis became politically involved (he ran for California State Assembly and lost) and also served as pastor of his own Landmark Church. In 1968 he published a Civil Rights-related book, Listen to the Lambs, and in 1994 he authored Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue, a chronicle of the Los Angeles R&B scene. He also painted, sculpted and even sold his own brand of apple juice and ran a grocery store in northern California. After his move north, he also hosted a popular radio program on KPFA, The Johnny Otis Show.
Johnny Otis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 as a “non-performer,” despite his many recordings and decades as a bandleader. He retired from performing in 2006.