Living Legend: Godfather of R&B

This magnificent Medusa of a talent wearing many hats, as will be unveiled, started out as the new son of Greek immigrant parents in Vallejo California named Veliotes. The Berkeley neighborhood where his parents owned the corner package store was predominately black, and the young teenager was beginning his musical career on drums, when he decided:


"...if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black..."


----and adopted the culture for real, aptly changing his name forever to Johnny Otis.

Big Band Big Jump

His first professional entrance was 1939 in Oakland drumming with big band Count Otis Matthews and His West Oakland Houserockers -- who billed themselves as a "jive blues band, jump band." After a stint with George Morrison's band in Denver, he was part of a 'territorial' big band, Lloyd Hunter's in the Nebraska region.

His acquaintance with Jimmy Witherspoon and Nat King Cole had another benefit, their suggestion in 1943 to join in Los Angeles' Harlan Leonard' Kansas City Rockets and club Alabam's regular attraction. Alabam's proprietor convinced Otis to form his own ensemble for resident musical gigs. In 1945 with his own big band, and expanded virtuosity on piano and vibraphones -- he recorded the mellow hit under his own name, Harlem Nocturne on the Excelsior label. They were invited to other clubs nationally as well. With Jimmy Rushing "shouting" in the fore, they cut two more for Excelsior, and had another notable session with Sax master Big Jay McNeely (which he continued with through 1947). He still was available to play on others' recordings as he did the percussion work that year on vocalist Charles Brown's premiere success, Driftin' Blues with Johnny Moore's Three Blazers, and Wynonie Harris. He worked with Illinois Jacquet and Bill Doggett in these mid to late forties years; and a special highlight was drumming for the Count Basie Orchestra. But with the end of that decade seemed to be the end of the Big Band era, especially the cost differential benefit of sizing down.

Big Band to Blues and Rhythm

By 1948 he partnered with Bardu Ali to open the Barrelhouse in Watts. This slimmed down group where Otis was probably the first Caucasian (and more importantly accepted as authentic) who played this music -- that one white admirer informed them during an intermission was "blues and rhythm." And they transitioned indeed to play predominately what would be termed Rhythm and Blues or R n' B: with vocalists Mel Walker and Little Esther Phillips taken from the Robins; and Pete Lewis on guitar backing him up (while he played vibes, too) for many years. The next year his contract with Newark NJ Savoy records was a success for everyone with 1950 ten Top Ten releases including number one R&B releases:

  • Double Crossing Blues (nine weeks #1
  • Mistrustin' Blues (four weeks #1)
  • Cupid's Boogie


    And 1951:


  • Gee Baby
  • Mambo Boogie
  • All Nite Long

They moved to Mercury at the end of 1951 where he released Floyd Dixon's Call Operator 210, and then he had a big hit in 1952 with Sunset to Dawn. They went on the road as stars as the California Rhythm and Blues Caravan. He was on Don Robey's Peacock label in 1953 when he helped discover Big Mama Thornton of "Hound Dog" fame; and the newcomer, Little Richard. His talent scout abilities would come to fruition with talents as Little Willie John, Jackie Wilson, and Etta James (for whom he wrote, Roll With Me Henry. Around this time he not only produced Johnny Aces' Pledging My Love but played on it and he helped out Big Joe Turner. Besides others mentioned, he was associated with Gatemouth Moore, Amos Milburne, Joe Liggins, Richard Berry, Lester Young, and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson.

Can You Dig It?

In 1955 Johnny made a go on his own to put his productions along with some of his newly found talents in the spotlight with his Dig Records. These included Arthur Lee Maye and the Crowns, Mel Williams, and Tony Allen.

Crossover at Capitol

In 1957 he now brought the Johnny Otis Show to Capitol and was expected to enter the burgeoning Rock and Roll market. This ensemble included Mel Williams and the humongous Marie Adams and the Three Tons of Joy. His 1958 release he wrote uniquely featuring him on lead vocal, Willie and the Hand Jive, did well on the pop airwaves and hit number three on the R&B charts; eventually selling one and a half million copies. Its chopping singing rhythm guitar and pounding drums is infectiously creative and has been covered by many others, most honorably by Eric Clapton. The line in the song: "Doctor, Lawyer and Indian Chief" showing different roles could prophetically apply -but multiplied- in regards to the multi-talent of Johnny Otis himself as producer, record label entrepreneur, club owner, talent scout, producer, drummer, pianist, vibraphonist, disc jockey, TV show host, author, health food purveyor and visual artist.

New Mediums

While at a gig later in the fifties in New York, the owner of the Apollo theater counseled Otis to think about staying in the limelight without always touring and suggested he become a disc jockey. After inquiring at KFOX, the program director, upon hearing the name Johnny Otis, brought the "Duke Ellington of Watts," on board. He became so popular a DJ in southern California that he even starred on a television production that at one time Lionel Hampton. He had a cameo on the silver screen for 1958's Juke Box Rhythm

Invasion in the Sixties

By 1960, and the hits harder to find, he switched to King for several years where he also backed up Guitar Watson on a couple of cuts. In 1968 he released his first album in ten years prompted by Frank Zappa, Cold Shot on LA's Kent (J&T) label. In the sixties he was an A&R scouting for Syd Nathan and his King label and with Federal he discovered Hank Ballard who was first with the Midnighters then the Royals and finally it was Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, who had the rock and roll standard, Work With Me Annie. He wrote a song for Jackie Wilson, Every Beat of My Heart, but covered by Gladys Knight and the Pips and he gets credit for So Fine.

The 1960's civil rights turmoil affected Otis to the point of his getting involved where it counts. He wrote his first book in 1968 on this issue, Listen to the Lambs, about the 1965 Watts riots .He served as Mervin Dymally's Deputy Chief of Staff, a friend he tracked through his advance from the first on California's State Assembly and Senate, Lt. Governor and U.S Congressman.

The Seventies and Shuggie

Though it seemed that R&B music was taking a back seat to the English Invasion, he kept it alive in his revues and by 1970 the Monterey Jazz Festival featured Esther Phillips, Eddie Vinson, Roy Milton, Ivory Joe Hunter, Roy Brown, Big Joe Turner, and the future -- his fifteen year old prodigious son, Shuggie Otis. That year not only was he on that release, The Johnny Otis Show Live at Monterey!, but he also was on Kooper Session: Al Kooper Introduces Shuggie Otis. In 1970 Wolf records captured Johnny Otis Live in Los Angeles. And Edsel released Live at Monterey in 1971. On Alligator (Sonet) records father and son got together for an album: The New Johnny Otis Show in 1982. That year he put out an LP on Charly, Rock n' Roll Revue.


In 1989 Capitol released The Capitol Years. The 90's brought a succession of albums: 1991, Be Bop Baby Blues, Let's Live It Up, and Creepin' with the Cats: The Legendary Dig Masters; 1992, Spirit of the Black Territory Bands (Arhoolie); 1993, Best of Rhythm & Blues and Swing, Johnny Otis Presents the Best of R & B by the Original Artists (Delta); 1994, Grammy nominated - Spirit of the Black Territory Bands (Arhoolie), Original Johnny Otis Show Vol 1 (Savoy Jazz); 1995, Hand Jive 85 (Blues Legends); and 1999, 3 CD set of 45-52 Savoy years - The Johnny Otis Rhythm and Blues Caravan (Epm Musique), Johnny Otis Blues & Swing Party Vol 1 featuring oldies, " Stack-a-Lee", "Misery," and "Louie Louie" (J&T).


Today and Beyond

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted him in their ninth annual dinner presented by "At Last" Etta James in 1994, and he is already inducted in the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame. He published another book, Blues, Bounce, Beat, Boogie, Bebop and BalladsThe turn of the century and we have the albums, Johnny Otis Rock & Roll Hit Parade (Ace) and 2001 Essential Recordings on Cleopatra, and Epm Musique's The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues provides the latest compilations. He published another book, Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue. He teaches a course on "Jazz, Blues and Popular Music in American Culture, and when he is not performing, he is either in the recording studio or his art studio. In fact the book, Colors and Chords -- The Art of Johnny Otis exhibits his sculptures and paintings. But his healthy epicurean tastes are shared in Otis' publication, Red Beans and Rice and Other Rock n' Roll Recipes and in his holistic food outlet. His marriage of over fifty years is inspirational, and the grand-kids are carrying on the Otis Show R&B tradition!

Source: AMG Biography online
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website
Blues Shot
"Pioneering Rhythm and Blues Legend," J.J. Perry, 1998; The Herald-Times: Bloomington, IN

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