Born Ioannis Veliotes, 28 December 1921, Vallejo, California
Died 17 January 2012, Altadena, California

A legend of the Los Angeles R&B scene, Johnny Otis has worked in almost every realm of popular music - as singer, songwriter, musician (drums, vibraphone, piano), bandleader, arranger, publisher, manager, deejay (for 50 years!), producer, talent scout, label owner, nightclub impresario and TV show host. He has also been a painter, sculptor, actor, author of three books, newspaper columnist, politician, community activist and a preacher. He is genetically white, but black in every other conceivable respect.

Born into a family of Greek immigrants, Otis grew up in a black neighbour- hood in Berkeley, California, where he developed a deep identification with black culture and black people. As a teenager he changed his name from Veliotes to Otis to make it sound more black. Drums were his first passion and by 1940 his musical talents were sufficiently asserted for him to play drums with the Oakland-based orchestra of Count Otis Matthews. After moving to Los Angeles in 1943 he gained further concert experience in the swing bands of Lloyd Hunter and Harlan Leonard. In 1945 Otis formed his own band, billed as "Johnny Otis, His Drums and Orchestra". At the end of that year, Otis secured an opportunity for his outfit to make a record for the Excelsior label. The four sides recorded were solidly in the big-band jazz vein and included an arrangement of the moody "Harlem Nocturne", a big seller that, mysteriously, never charted nationally, pop or R&B. Otis struck up a partnership with his new manager, Bardu Ali, to promote the music he was now calling "rhythm and blues". In 1948 they opened their own nightclub, the Barrelhouse, in the Watts district of L.A. Johnny had downsized his band, which was billed alternaterly as the Johnny Otis Caravan, the Johnny Otis Congregation and the Johnny Otis Show. The ensemble featured several different singers, among them Little Esther, Mel Walker and the vocal group the Robins, all of them Otis's discoveries. Johnny took these singers with him when he signed with Savoy Records in 1949. His 3-year tenure at Savoy was very successful, with fourteen R&B Top 10 hits (10 of them in 1950 alone!), including three number ones ("Double Crossing Blues","Mistrustin' Blues", "Cupid's Boogie"). Though credited to Johnny Otis and his Orchestra, Otis was the vocalist on only one of these hits ("All Nite Long") ; in most cases the lead vocal was by Little Esther or Mel Walker (or both, in duet).

In the early fifties Otis also worked as a talent scout for King Records. He discovered Hank Ballard, Jackie Wilson and Little Willie John and later Etta James, for whom he produced her first hit, "The Wallflower" (aka "Roll With Me Henry"), in November 1954.

After a brief stay with Mercury in 1952, Otis struck a deal with Don Robey's Houston-based Peacock label, where he worked with Big Mama Thornton (another of his discoveries), a young Little Richard and Johnny Ace, among others. Next he started his own label, Dig Records, in 1955, with sax man Jackie Kelso as A&R man. The label was intended to feature local talent, as well as Johnny's own recordings, but distribution problems forced Otis to close the label in 1957, without having produced any hits. His next stop was Capitol and from a rock n roll point of view, this was his most interesting period and the one for which he is best remembered. Capitol wanted him to create music that was "more tolerable to the white audience". During a few extended sessions in August and September 1957 Otis and his Revue recorded enough material for an LP ("The Johnny Otis Show", Capitol T 940). Several LP tracks were pre-released as singles in October ; in fact, Capitol released four singles simultaneously. Among them was "Ma! He's Making Eyes At Me" by Marie Adams and the Three Tons of Joy, which would climb to # 2 in the UK and the Netherlands, though it failed to chart in the USA. But the crown jewel of the album was the opening track, "Shake It Lucy Baby", which clocks in at 5:14. "Bye Bye Baby", a duet between Otis and Marie Adams, was another Top 20 hit in the UK and one of his best rockers. The wailing saxes of Jackie Kelso and Plas Johnson plus the solid backbeat of drummer Earl Palmer were important ingredients in the excitement of these recordings. Johnny Otis finally scored his first pop hit in the summer of 1958, with "Willie And the Hand Jive" (# 9). The catchy rhythm of this song was not borrowed from Bo Diddley, as many people believed, but went back to Johnny's days with Count Otis Matthews' band in the 1940s.

Otis had three further (minor) Top 100 hits on Capitol, including "Castin' My Spell" (sung with Marci Lee), which would later become a staple of the repertoire of many British beat groups. Its flip, "Telephone Baby" (also a duet of Otis and Marci Lee), was a Top 10 hit in Holland. His last Capitol session took place in November 1959 and yielded "Mumblin' Mosie", which had to be withdrawn from the market, as it was considered to be offensive for people with speech impediments.

Strangely, Otis is dismissive of his period as a rock n roller. In George Lipsitz's book (see below) he is quoted as saying : "My Capitol Records time was very lucrative in dollars and cents, but very negative creatively. I tried to chase the almighty dollar and listened to bad advice from profit- motivated sources when I should have been my own Black self, recording my own R&B sounds, and not gone into contrived rock 'n' roll shit. With a few exceptions, of which 'Willie And the Hand Jive' is one, I am quite ashamed of some of the directions I took in those days" (page 69-70).

During the 1960s Johnny recorded R&B and soul for King, Eldo (his own label), Kent and Epic. In the 1970s the focus of his attention shifted to political activism, art (paintings and sculpture) and religion. He started his own church, the Landmark Community Church and was ordained as a minister. But he also found time to make a triumphant visit to the UK in 1972 with Marie Adams, after plans for a 1958 tour had been thwarted by the draconian rulings regarding work permits for non-UK musicians. Otis, the "Godfather of Rhythm and Blues", was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1994 as a non-performer for his work as a songwriter and producer. His son Shuggie Otis (born 1953) is a highly respected blues musician and has sung and played guitar on many of his father's later recordings. In 2006 Otis stopped performing, after a musical career of some 60 years. He hopes to celebrate his 90th birthday in December.

More info :
Official website :

- Johnny Otis, Upside Your Head : Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue. Hanover, NH : University Press of New England, 1993. 212 pages. A mix of music, culture and race politics. Paperback still in print.
- George Lipsitz, Midnight At the Barrelhouse : The Johnny Otis Story. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 2010. 235 pages. I found this a disappointing biography. Lipsitz, a sociologist, focuses on Otis's contribution to the struggle of Afro-Americans for equal rights. So the book is primarily about race relations, hardly about music. And it's almost a hagiography : Otis seems to have no faults.

CD's :
- The Greatest Johnny Otis Show (Ace 673, 1998). 26 Capitol recordings. CD booklet by Stuart Colman. Highly recommended.
- The Johnny Otis Rhythm and Blues Caravan, The Complete Savoy Recordings. (Savoy Jazz, 1999). 77 tracks (1949-52) on 3 CD's.

Acknowledgements : Stuart Colman (liner notes Ace CD & article in Now Dig This 304), George Lipsitz, Wayne Jancik (yes, Otis is included in Jancik's Billboard book of one-hit wonders, because he had only one Top 40 pop hit!).

YouTube :
Harlem Nocturne :
Shake It Lucy Baby :
Bye Bye Baby :
Willie and the Hand Jive (live) :
Ring-A-Ling :
Castin' My Spell :
Telephone Baby :

Dik, August 2011

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
Yahoo Group "Shakin' All Over". For comments or information
please contact Dik de Heer at

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