Johnny Otis (Born Ioannis Veliotis)
December 28, 1921 – January 17, 2012
Referred to as the “Godfather Of Rhythm and Blues,” Johnny Otis was a man of many aspirations and musical talents. Born and raised in the San Francisco area, Otis went on to become a successful bandleader, producer, songwriter, journalist, talent scout, arranger, disc jockey, vibraphonist, drummer, club owner, merchant, and even politician. His most popular contribution to popular music came by way of “Willie and the Hand Jive,” which sold over 1.5 million copies, rose to #9 on the pop charts, and has since been recorded by the likes of George Thorogood, Levon Helm, Eric Clapton, Cliff Richard, and New Riders of the Purple Sage, to name just a few. A child of Greek immigrants, Otis actually lived and worked as part of the African-American community while employing mostly black musicians for his bands. He began making an impact on music during the late ’40s when he opened a nightclub in the Watts section of Los Angeles. It was there that he made his first discovery, Little Esther Phillips, who went on to have several pop and R&B hits of her own. Other future greats he is credited for discovering and working with during their early years include Big Jay McNeely, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, Etta James and Big Mama Thornton, whose signature song, “Hound Dog,” was produced by Otis. In 1958, Otis recorded the self-penned “Willie and the Hand Jive” which quickly became a smash with both black and white audiences and went on to become one of the most iconic songs of the era. A tireless performer, Otis and his band toured the world well into the 2000s. During the ’60s, he made an unsuccessful run for the California State Assembly. Many blamed the loss on the fact that he ran under his virtually unknown birth name. In 1994, Otis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in later years, he hosted “The Johnny Otis Show” on San Francisco radio station, KPFA. Due to declining health, he did his last show in August of 2006. His son, Shuggie Otis, had hits of his own during the ’70s. Johnny Otis was 90 when he passed away in his home on January 17, 2012
Thanks to Paul Bearer for the assist.