×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

R&B ‘godfather’ Johnny Otis dies at 90

Musician brought black music to white audiences

Johnny Otis, the “godfather of rhythm and blues” who wrote and recorded the R&B classic “Willie and the Hand Jive” and for decades evangelized black music to white audiences as a bandleader and radio host, died at his home in the Los Angeles foothill suburb of Altadena on Tuesday. He was 90 and had been in poor health for several years.

Otis, who was white, was born John Veliotes to Greek immigrants and grew up in a black section of Berkeley, where he said he identified far more with black culture than his own. As a teenager, he changed his name because he thought Johnny Otis sounded more black.

“As a kid, I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black,” he once explained.

His musical tastes clearly reflected that adopted culture and even after he became famous, his dark skin and hair often led audiences and club promoters to assume he was black like his bandmates.

Otis was leading his own band in 1945 when he scored his first big hit, “Harlem Nocturne.” In 1950, 10 of his songs made Billboard magazine’s R&B chart. His “Willie and the Hand Jive” sold more than 1.5 million copies and was covered years later by Eric Clapton.

He later wrote “Every Beat of My Heart,” which was a hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips.

But the influence of Otis was felt most through his ability to recognize and promote talent. He wove into his bands such diverse and legendary R&B vocalists as Etta James, Hank Ballard, Big Mama Thornton and the Robins, the last a group that would evolve into the Coasters.

He produced Thornton’s original recording of “Hound Dog,” a song that would later become an even bigger hit for Elvis Presley.

“His band shows a different style on pretty much every new recording,” said Piero Scaruffi, author of “A History of Rock Music, 1951-2000.” “The reason is that Otis did not force his personality on others but worked with the personality of the others. He may not have been a great composer or performer himself, but he was an impressive conductor.”

Otis launched his professional music career as an 18-year-old drummer for bawdy barrelhouse pianist Count Otis Matthews, although he had never played the drums until then.

Matthews instructed him to simply pound out the syncopated “shave and a haircut, six bits” beat that would become the backbone of early rock ‘n’ roll. His mastery of it soon proved his ticket to other bands and eventually to headlining his own group.

Otis saw himself as curator of black popular music, which for him represented much more than a diversion or livelihood. His cross-country R&B reviews and his radio and television appearances were dedicated to delivering black music to white audiences.

“The music isn’t just the notes, it’s the culture — the way grandma cooked, the way grandpa told stories, the way the kids walked and talked,” he once said.

In later years he toured with his sons Shuggie and Nicky and spent much of his time painting and sculpting. He also opened an organic grocery store in Sebastopol in the early 1990s to sell his son Nicky’s vegetables, decorating the store with his own colorful murals.

Although he had little success selling groceries, he did draw large crowds to the market every Friday and Saturday night when he performed there with his band.

Otis also had a regular show playing records on the nonprofit Pacifica Radio Network’s stations until failing health prompted him to retire in 2005.

In addition to his sons, Otis is survived by his wife, Phyllis, whom he married in 1941; daughters Janet and Laura; and several grandchildren.__

More Scene

  • Adam Driver appears at the curtain

    Adam Driver on Starring in 'Burn This' for a Second Time

    The Hudson Theatre’s new production of “Burn This” marks its first Broadway revival since it premiered on the Great White Way in 1987, but Adam Driver is no stranger to the work. He starred as Pale in a Juilliard production of the Lanford Wilson drama when he was still a student — and only now, [...]

  • PMC Event Rome

    Film, Fashion, Formula E Mix at Rome E-Prix Bash

    Film, fashion and Formula E auto-racing fused during a dinner and celebration of the Rome E-Prix on Thursday at the Palazzo Dama by the Piazza del Popolo in the heart of the Eternal City.  Guests mingled and sipped cocktails as hors d’oeuvres were passed around in a former home of the Italian nobility with conversation [...]

  • Katy Perry, Diane von Furstenberg, Arianna

    Katy Perry and Anita Hill Honored at the DVF Awards

    Katy Perry was among the honorees at the 10th Annual DVF Awards on Thursday night. The singer was recognized for her advocacy work with both UNICEF and the LGBTQ community. “Music has opened the doors for so many opportunities for me,” she said while accepting the inspiration award. “The ability to meet people and champion [...]

  • Chrissy Metz'Breakthrough' Film Premiere, Arrivals, Regency

    Why 'This Is Us' Star Chrissy Metz Could End Up Performing at the Next Oscars

    Chrissy Metz made her live-singing debut on Sunday when she performed “I’m Standing With You” from her new movie “Breakthrough.” Was that just a step on her way to performing at the Oscars? Could be. The song was written by 10-time Oscar nominee Diane Warren. “They said Chrissy had to sing it and I was [...]

  • Bob IgerSimon Weisenthal Gala honoring Bob

    Disney's Bob Iger Blasts Hateful Political Discourse and Social Media: 'We Can Do Better'

    Bob Iger didn’t mince words while being honored Thursday by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Upon receiving the Humanitarian Award at the organization’s National Tribute Dinner from Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Walt Disney Co. chairman and CEO delivered a scathing critique of social media and the current state of political discourse. “Hate and anger are dragging us [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content