Johnny Otis died last week. Most people never heard of him. A few of us older folks know the name sounds familiar but can’t quite place when and exactly who was Johnny Otis. People on the west coast were lucky to have him for 90 years. Growing up in the Midwest, we were unaware of his huge fan base.
In the springtime of 1958, the sounds of rock and roll radio started to change…for the better. Every day and night, back then, we Midwestern teens had our ears plastered to rock stations in Chicago and Indianapolis listening to watered-down white-boy interpretations of black rhythm and blues. They wouldn’t play Little Richard singing Tuttie Fruttie, but gave us a syrupy version by Pat Boone. Late at night we would get a clear signal out of Nashville and listen to the old “Hossman” playing black music. It was on KLAC one night in “58”, I first heard Johnny Otis singing “Willie and The Hand Jive”. They couldn’t keep that music off of any station. It sold 1.5 million copies and was in the Top Ten on the charts that whole summer. For most of our lives, we listeners always assumed the Hossman and Johnny Otis were black. But long before Eminem became a white rapper, Johnny Otis became the renaissance man of rhythm and blues.
Johnny Otis was born to Greek parents and his given name was John Veliotes. His parents owned a grocery in a black neighborhood in Berkeley. As a teenager in the 30s, he changed his name because he thought Johnny Otis sounded “more black”. He once explained, “If our society dictates that one has to be black or white, I choose to be black.” He became the “godfather of rhythm and blues”. His influence on the music scene was felt most by his ability to recognize and promote great talent. He would bring his discovered talent into his band and promote and produce their records. He discovered Hank Ballard, Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, Big Mama Thornton and The Robins. Johnny produced Big Mama’s first record called “Hound Dog” that Elvis later scored big with. The Robins became The Coasters with many top hits. He discovered Etta James when she was 14 years old, rushed her into a recording studio and produced her first hit, “Roll with me Henry”. Etta James just died last Friday.
When I moved to Orange County in 1980, I accidently tuned into a L.A. radio show playing some great rhythm and blues. I programmed it on my dial and after weeks of enjoying the disk jockey, his comments and his choice of great music, I was overjoyed to hear him sign off as “The Johnny Otis Show”. I lost track of him for about 20 years and then he popped up on my radio dial again when I had moved to Northern California. Once again the Johnny Otis Show was playing great tunes on Pacific Radio Network from his Sebastopol home.
Johnny Otis was far more than a guy who sang “Willie and The Hand Jive.” He was a bandleader, an administrative assistant to the lieutenant governor, a minister with his own church, a disc jockey, a college professor, a painter and sculptor, an author, and a celebrated chef.
But in 1958 he had an entire generation doing crazy stuff with our hands while listening to rhythm and blues.