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*Johnny Otis was born on this date in 1921. He was a white, Greek American singer, musician, composer, and record producer.
Born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes, in Vallejo, California, he was often referred to as the "Godfather of Rhythm and Blues". Otis was the child of Greek immigrants Alexander J. Veliotes, a Mare Island longshoreman and grocery store owner, and his wife, the former Irene Kiskakes, a painter. He was the older brother of Nicholas A. Veliotes, former U.S. Ambassador to Jordan (1978–1981) and to Egypt (1984–1986).
Otis grew up in a Black neighborhood in Berkeley, California, where his father owned and operated a neighborhood grocery store. Otis’s choice to live his professional and personal life as a member of the Black community was very public and well documented. He has written, "As a kid, I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black."
After playing drums in a variety of swing orchestras he founded his own band in 1945 and had one of the most enduring hits of the big band era, "Harlem Nocturne". His band included Wynonie Harris and Charles Brown. In 1947, he and Bardu Ali opened the Barrelhouse Club in the Watts district of Los Angeles, California. He reduced the size of his band and hired singers Mel Walker, Little Esther Phillips, and the Robins (who later became the Coasters). He discovered the teenage Phillips when she won one of the Barrelhouse Club's talent shows. With this band, which toured extensively throughout the United States as the California Rhythm and Blues Caravan, he had a long string of rhythm and blues hits through 1950.
In 1951, Otis moved to the Mercury label, but his chart success began to diminish. However, he discovered Etta James and produced and co-wrote her first hit, "Roll With Me, Henry" (also known as "The Wallflower"). Around this time Otis married his wife Phyllis and in 1953, his son Shuggie Otis was born. Otis produced, co-wrote, and played drums on the original recording of "Hound Dog" with vocals by Big Mama Thornton, and was given a writing credit on all six of the 1953 releases of the song.
He was a successful songwriter; one of his most famous compositions is "Every Beat of My Heart", first recorded by The Royals in 1952 and became a hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips then just 'Pips' in 1961. He also began featuring himself on vibraphone on many of his recordings while producing and playing the vibraphone on Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love", which was no. 1 on the Billboard R and B chart for 10 weeks in 1955. He also wrote "So Fine", which was originally recorded by The Sheiks in 1955 and in 1959 was a hit for The Fiestas. As an artist and repertory man for King Records, he discovered Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, and Little Willie John, among others. He also became a disc jockey in Los Angeles.
In 1957, he signed to Capitol Records with his band now being credited as the Johnny Otis Show. In 1958, he recorded his best-known recording, "Willie and the Hand Jive", a clave-based vamp, which relates to hand and arm motions in time with the music, called the hand jive. This went on to be a hit in the summer of 1958, peaking at no. 9 on the U.S. Pop chart, and becoming Otis's only Top 10 single. The single reached no. 1 on the Billboard R and B chart. Eric Clapton covered the song in 1974. Otis' success with the song was short-lived, and he briefly moved to King Records in 1961, where he backed Johnny "Guitar" Watson on some recordings.
In the 1960s, he entered journalism and politics, losing a campaign for a seat in the California State Assembly (running under his much less well-known real name). He then became chief of staff for Democratic Congressman Mervyn Dymally. He was also was the pastor of Landmark Community Church. In 1970 he played at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival. In the 1980s he had a weekly radio show in Los Angeles, playing R&B music and also recorded with his son Shuggie Otis, releasing the 1982 album The New Johnny Otis Show.
Otis continued performing through the 1990s and headlined the San Francisco Blues Festival in 1990 and 2000, although because of his many other interests he went through long periods where he did not perform. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 as a songwriter and producer.
Otis hosted a radio show on KPFA, The Johnny Otis Show. This show aired Saturday morning, live from the Powerhouse Brewery in Sebastopol. Listeners were invited to stop in for breakfast and enjoy the show live. Due to declining health, as well as his relocation to Los Angeles, his participation in the show decreased. The show last aired on August 19, 2006. Johnny Otis died on January 17, 2012.
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