17 January 2012 – Johnny Otis was born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes on December 28th 1921 in Vallejo, a predominantly black neighborhood in California.
Otis began playing drums as a teenager, when he purchased a set by forging his father’s signature on a credit slip. Soon after he dropped out of Berkeley High School during his junior year, Otis joined a local band with pianist friend ‘Count’ Otis Matthews called the West Oakland Houserockers. By 1939, they were performing at many of the local functions, primarily in and around the Oakland and Berkeley area, and became quite popular among their peers.
He then started out playing drums in a variety of swing orchestras, including Lloyd Hunter’s Serenaders, and Harlan Leonard’s Rockets, after which he founded his own band in 1945 and had one of the most enduring hits of the big band era, “Harlem Nocturne”. A true pioneering rhythm and blues singer, talent scout, disc jockey, composer, arranger, author, record producer, vibraphonist, drummer, bandleader, pastor, he was commonly referred to as the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues”.
He discovered tenor saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, who then performed on his uptempo “Barrelhouse Stomp”. He began recording Little Esther and Mel Walker for the Newark, New Jersey-based Savoy label in 1949 and began releasing a stream of hit records, including “Double Crossing Blues”, “Mistrustin’ Blues” and “Cupid Boogie”; all three reached no. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart. Other of his hits included “Gee Baby”, “All Nite Long” “Mambo Boogie”, “Sunset to Dawn” and “Ma He’s Making Eyes At Me”.
In 1950, Otis was presented the R&B Artist of the Year trophy by Billboard. He also began featuring himself on vibraphone on many of his recordings. In 1951, Otis released “Mambo Boogie” featuring congas, maracas, claves, and mambo saxophone guajeos in a blues progression. This was to be the very first R&B mambo ever recorded.
Around the time Otis moved to the Mercury label in 1951, he discovered vocalist Etta James, who was only 13 at the time, at one of his talent shows. He produced and co-wrote her first hit, “The Wallflower (Roll With Me, Henry)”.
In 1952, Otis auditioned singer Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton. He also produced, co-wrote, and played drums on the original 1953 recording of “Hound Dog” (he and his band also provided the backup ‘howling’ vocals). It was also co-written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, He had a legal dispute with the songwriting duo over the credits after he learned that Leiber and Stoller revised the contractual agreement prior to a new version of the song being recorded by singer Elvis Presley, which became an instant no. 1 smash hit. Claiming Leiber and Stoller illegally had the original contract nullified and rewrote a new one stating that the two boys (who were both 17) were the only composers of the song, Otis litigated. However, the presiding judge awarded the case to the defendants based on the fact that their signing of the first contract with Otis was ‘null and void’ since they were minors at the time.
One of Otis’ most famous compositions is the ballad “Every Beat of My Heart”, first recorded by The Royals in 1952 on Federal Records but then became a hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1961. He also produced and played the vibraphone on singer Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love”, which was at no. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts for 10 weeks. Another successful song for Otis was “So Fine”, which was originally recorded by The Sheiks in 1955 on Federal and was a hit for The Fiestas in 1959. As an artist and repertory man for King Records he discovered numerous young prospects who would later become successful, including Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, and Little Willie John, among others.
In addition to hosting his own television show titled “The Johnny Otis Show”, he also became an influential disc-jockey in Los Angeles, hosting his own radio show in 1955.
In April 1958, he recorded his best-known recording, “Willie and the Hand Jive”, a clave-based vamp, which relates to hand and arm motions in time with the music, called the hand jive. This went on to be a hit in the summer of 1958, peaking at no. 9 on the U.S. Pop chart, and becoming Otis’ only Top 10 single. The single reached no. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart. Otis’ success with the song was somewhat short-lived, and he briefly moved to King Records in 1961, where he worked with Johnny “Guitar” Watson.
In 1969, Otis landed a deal with Columbia Records and recorded “Cold Shot!” and the sexually explicit Snatch and the Poontangs (which had an “X” rating), both of which featured his son Shuggie and singer Delmar ‘Mighty Mouth’ Evans.
A year later, he recorded a double-live album of his band’s performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival titled Johnny Otis Show Live at Monterey! A portion of the performance was featured in the Clint Eastwood film Play Misty For Me.
Although Otis’ touring lessened throughout the 1970s, he started the Blues Spectrum label and released a fifteen album series entitled Rhythm and Blues Oldies, which featured 1950’s R&B artists Louis Jordan, Roy Milton, Richard Berry, and even Otis himself.
During the 1980s, he had a weekly radio show which aired Monday evenings from 8 to 11 pm on Los Angeles radio station KPFK, where he played records and had guest appearances by such R&B artists as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
Otis also recorded with his sons Shuggie on guitar and Nicky on drums, releasing a slew of albums, including The New Johnny Otis Show(1982), Johnny Otis! Johnny Otis! (1984), and Otisology (1985). In the summer of 1987, Otis hosted his own Red Beans & Rice R&B Music Festival in Los Angeles which featured top-name acts and hosted a Southern-style red beans and rice cook-off. He moved the festival site to the city of San Dimas, where it ran annually in association with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation for twenty years until 2006.
Otis and his family moved from Southern California to Sebastopol, California, a small apple farming town in Sonoma County. He continued performing in the U.S. and Europe through the 1990s, headlining the San Francisco Blues Festival in 1990 and 2000. In 1993, he opened The Johnny Otis Market, a deli-style grocery store/cabaret, where he and his band played sold-out shows every weekend until its doors closed in 1995. He was inducted to both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Blues Hall of Fame in 1994.
Aside from his many accomplishments, Johnny was held responsible for launching the career of the late Etta James Hawkins; who passed 3 days later in the same week. It is rumored that they had a long lovers relationship that produced singer Beyonce, who’s real rumored age would be 42.
Johnny Otis was 90 years old when he died of natural causes on 17 January 2012.