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Johnny Otis dies at 90; R&B singer wrote 'Willie and the Hand Jive'

Published: 2012-01-19
Johnny Otis Johnny Otis, who is white, grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood and had a deep connection to black culture. He discovered Etta James and Little Richard.

Pioneering rhythm-and-blues singer, songwriter, drummer, bandleader and disc jockey Johnny Otis made the kind of conscious life choice early on that few people have the inclination, or circumstance, to carry out.

Born white, the son of Greek immigrant parents, and raised in a predominantly black neighborhood in Northern California in the 1920s, Otis decided as a youth that he'd rather be black.

The choice put him on a path to a life in music during which he created the sensually pulsing 1958 hit “Willie and the Hand Jive." It also gave him a deep connection to black culture that helped him discover such future stars of R&B and rock as Etta James, Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Little Esther Phillips.

“Yes, I chose," Otis told The Times in 1979, “because despite all the hardships, there's a wonderful richness in black culture that I prefer."

Otis died Tuesday in the Los Angeles area, where he had lived for much of his life, said Tom Reed, a black-music historian. He was 90.

Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, Otis continued leading a big band R&B, jazz, soul, gospel and roots-rock revue in recent years, literally and figuratively beating the drum for the music that fired his imagination.

“I get a wave of pride in America when I look back at what we've accomplished in the field of music," Otis told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “People are going to wake up to this great reservoir of music we've created in America—cakewalks, one-steps, boogie-woogie, country and western. I had a bit to do with one of those traditions."

“I'm not suggesting our music is the only music," he told The Times in 1986 when the once-endangered musical style he helped create was staging a comeback, “but I am suggesting that there are certain elements in America's culture that are so precious that it would be a shame for them to go down the drain."

He was born John Veliotes on Dec. 28, 1921, in Vallejo, northeast of San Francisco, and was raised in Berkeley, where his father ran a grocery store in a largely black community.

“When I got near teen age, I was so happy with my friends and the African American culture that I couldn't imagine not being part of it," Otis told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1991.

He started playing drums with big bands and jazz combos, and in his early 20s came to L.A. to join Harlan Leonard's Kansas City Rockers, the house band at Club Alabam on the thriving Central Avenue jazz-blues-R&B club scene.

“Man, you could go into one club and there'd be [jazz saxophone giant] Lester Young jamming, go into another and you'd find T Bone [Walker, the Texas blues guitarist and singer], and down the street Miles [Davis] would be blowing," Otis said in 1979. “Yeah, L.A. was happening."

But tough times in the late 1940s forced bandleaders to pare their large ensembles back to a small handful of players—the perfect size, as it turned out, for the new styles of R&B and rock 'n' roll that were emerging.


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