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R.I.P. Johnny Otis, ‘Godfather of Rhythm and Blues’

January 21, 2012

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Johnny Otis, the musician, bandleader, songwriter, impresario, disc jockey and talent scout who was often called “the godfather of rhythm and blues,” died on Tuesday at his home in Altadena, Calif. He was 90.

Leading a band in the late 1940s that combined the high musical standards of big band jazz with the raw urgency of gospel music and the blues, Mr. Otis played an important role in creating a new sound for a new audience of young urban blacks. Within a few years it would form the foundation of rock ’n’ roll.

With a keen ear for talent, he helped steer a long list of performers to stardom, among them Etta James, Jackie Wilson, Esther Phillips and Big Mama Thornton — whose hit recording of “Hound Dog,” made in 1952, four years before Elvis Presley’s, was produced by Mr. Otis and featured him on drums.

At Mr. Otis’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, Ms. James referred to him as her “guru.” (He received similar honors from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation and the Blues Foundation.)

Mr. Otis was also a political activist, a preacher, an artist, an author and even, late in life, an organic farmer. But it was in music that he left his most lasting mark.

Despite being a mover and shaker in the world of black music, Mr. Otis was not black, which as far as he was concerned was simply an accident of birth. He was immersed in African-American culture from an early age and said he considered himself “black by persuasion.”

“Genetically, I’m pure Greek,” he told The San Jose Mercury News in 1994. “Psychologically, environmentally, culturally, by choice, I’m a member of the black community.”

As a musician (he played piano and vibraphone in addition to drums) Mr. Otis can be heard on Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love,” Charles Brown’s “Drifting Blues” and other seminal rhythm and blues records, as well as on jazz recordings by Lester Young and Illinois Jacquet.

As a bandleader and occasional vocalist, he had a string of rhythm and blues hits in the early 1950s and a Top 10 pop hit in 1958 with his composition “Willie and the Hand Jive,” later covered by Eric Clapton and others. His many other compositions included “Every Beat of My Heart,” a Top 10 hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1961.

As a disc jockey (he was on the radio for decades starting in the 1950s and had his own Los Angeles television show from 1954 to 1961) he helped bring black vernacular music into the American mainstream.

Johnny Otis was born John Alexander Veliotes (some sources give his first name as Ioannis) on Dec. 28, 1921, in Vallejo, Calif., the son of Greek immigrants who ran a grocery. He grew up in a predominantly black area of Berkeley. Mr. Otis began his career as a drummer in 1939. In 1945 he formed a 16-piece band and recorded his first hit, “Harlem Nocturne.”

As big bands fell out of fashion, Mr. Otis stripped the ensemble down to just a few horns and a rhythm section and stepped to the forefront of the emerging rhythm and blues scene. In 1948 he and a partner opened a nightclub, the Barrelhouse, in the Watts section of Los Angeles.

From 1950 to 1952 Mr. Otis had 15 singles on Billboard’s rhythm and blues Top 40, including “Double Crossing Blues,” which was No. 1 for nine weeks. On the strength of that success he crisscrossed the country with his California Rhythm and Blues Caravan, featuring singers like Ms. Phillips, billed as Little Esther — whom he had discovered at a talent contest at his nightclub — and Hank Ballard, who a decade later would record the original version of “The Twist,” the song that ushered in a national dance craze.

Around this time Mr. Otis became a D.J. on the Los Angeles-area radio station KFOX. He was an immediate success, and soon had his own local television show as well. He had a weekly program on the Pacifica Radio Network in California from the 1970s until 2005.

Hundreds of Mr. Otis’s radio and television shows are archived at Indiana University. In addition, he is the subject of a coming documentary film, “Every Beat of My Heart: The Johnny Otis Story,” directed by Bruce Schmiechen, and a biography, “Midnight at the Barrelhouse,” by George Lipsitz, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2010.

While he never stopped making music as long as his health allowed, Mr. Otis focused much of his attention in the 1960s on politics and the civil rights movement. He ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the California State Assembly and served on the staff of Mervyn M. Dymally, a Democratic assemblyman who later became a United States representative and California’s first black lieutenant governor.

Mr. Otis’s first book, “Listen to the Lambs” (1968), was largely a reflection on the political and social significance of the 1965 Watts riots.

In the mid-1970s Mr. Otis branched out further when he was ordained as a minister and opened the nondenominational Landmark Community Church in Los Angeles. While he acknowledged that some people attended just “to see what Reverend Hand Jive was talking about,” he took his position seriously and in his decade as pastor was involved in charitable work including feeding the homeless.

In the early 1990s he moved to Sebastopol, an agricultural town in northern California, and became an organic farmer, a career detour that he said was motivated by his concern for the environment. For several years he made and sold his own brand of apple juice in a store he opened to sell the produce he grew with his son Nick. The store doubled as a nightclub where Mr. Otis and his band performed.

Later that decade he published three more books: “Upside Your Head!: Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue” (1993), a memoir of his musical life; “Colors and Chords” (1995), a collection of his paintings, sculptures, wood carvings and cartoons (his interest in art had begun when he started sketching cartoons on his tour bus in the 1950s to amuse his band); and “Red Beans & Rice and Other Rock ’n’ Roll Recipes” (1997), a cookbook.

Mr. Otis continued to record and perform into the 21st century. His bands often included family members: his son John Jr., known as Shuggie, is a celebrated guitarist who played with him for many years, and Nick was his longtime drummer. Two grandsons, Lucky and Eric Otis, also played guitar with him.

In addition to his sons, he is survived by his wife of 70 years, the former Phyllis Walker; two daughters, Janice Johnson and Laura Johnson; nine grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren; and a great-great-grandchild.

Long after he was a force on the rhythm and blues charts, Mr. Otis was a familiar presence at blues and even jazz festivals. What people wanted to call his music, he said, was of no concern to him.

“Society wants to categorize everything, but to me it’s all African-American music,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1993. “The music isn’t just the notes, it’s the culture — the way Grandma cooked, the way Grandpa told stories, the way the kids walked and talked.” -The NYT, today

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One Comment
  1. January 21, 2012 4:26 PM

    What an incredible life. Humbling. Also, sad that Etta James passed away.

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