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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.

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