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Johnny Otis: White evangelist for black music

Published: 2012-01-21
Johnny Otis Johnny Otis' best-known song was 1958's Willie and the Hand Jive, but the bandleader and disc jockey had a far more reaching influence on the development of R&B. Otis, who died Tuesday at his home in Altadena, Calif., at age 90, dedicated his life to promoting the music to mainstream audiences.

He earned the title “godfather of rhythm and blues" by helping launch the careers of Etta James, Little Esther Phillips, Big Mama Thornton, Jackie Wilson, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Hank Ballard, Little Willie John and others.

Otis was born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes to Greek immigrant parents in Vallejo, Calif., but grew up in a predominately black section of Berkeley, where his father owned a grocery store and Otis developed his love of R&B. He found work as a drummer for Count Otis Matthew's West Oakland House Rockers in 1939, and four years later, he moved to Los Angeles to further his career.

He had his own band by 1945, when he got his first big hit, the moody instrumental Harlem Nocturne, and his dynamic live shows fueled his popularity. From 1948 to 1958, Otis scored 14 top 10 R&B songs, including No. 1 hits Double Crossing Blues, Cupid Boogie, Mistrustin' Blues and Willie and the Hand Jive.

Otis produced and played on the original Hound Dog by Thornton in 1952, four years before it became a hit for Elvis Presley. He played and produced for such stars as Johnny Ace, Big Joe Turner, Clarence “Gatemouth" Brown, Eddie “Cleanhead" Vinson, Charles Brown and Louis Jordan. He wrote James' first hit, Roll With Me Henry (The Wallflower), and Every Beat of My Heart (originally written for Jackie Wilson) for Gladys Knight and the Pips.

He became a disc jockey in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, and he spread the R&B gospel to audiences for nearly 50 years. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a songwriter and producer in 1994, the R&B Foundation Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2000.

Otis had broad interests. He worked throughout the 1960s and 1970s for California politician Mervyn Dymally, who held several state positions, including lieutenant governor, and was a congressman. He also operated an organic grocery store and spent much of his latter years painting and sculpting.


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