Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


OTIS, Johnny

(b 28 December 1921, Vallejo CA; d 17 January 2012, Los Angeles) Drums, vibes, leader, vocalist, songwriter, music publisher, etc. His Greek-American parents named Veliotes ran a grocery store in a neighbourhood that became a ghetto; he changed his name because he was tired of hearing it mispronounced, grew up black and remained black, having so much fun playing music with his black friends that he couldn't imagine it any other way. He had taken up drums '39 and worked with many bands including Harlan Leonard; he recorded with Lester Young on Aladdin. He led his own big band in L.A. '45; at his first recording session the 17-piece band included Teddy Buckner on trumpet, future Basie trombonist Henry Coker, Paul Quinichette and Bill Doggett; Jimmy Rushing sang two songs and the instrumental 'Harlem Nocturne' was something of a hit.

He led a smaller group from '47 as the Big Band Era was running down; he had 15 big hits in the Billboard R&B chart with vocals by the Robins, Little Esther and Mel Walker, but as the hits were on Savoy he did not see much money: Herman Lubinsky was famous for not paying royalties. Otis co-owned the Barrel House Club '48-50. He wrote 'Every Beat Of My Heart' for Jackie Wilson and the Royals '51, but nothing happened; it was a smash ten years later for Gladys Knight and the Pips. He recorded with Ben Webster on Mercury '53, recorded for Peacock '54, produced Johnny Ace and Big Mama Thornton; he helped Leiber and Stoller write down Thornton's 'Hound Dog', and later said they cut him out when the money from the Elvis Presley version '56 started coming. He discovered Etta James '55, wrote 'Roll With Me, Henry', an answer to Hank Ballard's 'Work With Me, Annie'; James recorded it, Georgia Gibbs covered it as 'Dance With Me, Henry', one of the biggest hits of the year, royalties split among Otis, James and Ballard. He had a touring R&B revue 'The Johnny Otis Show'. He learned the 'shave-and-a-haircut, six-bits' rhythm mid-'40s from pianist/leader Count Otis Matthews, who had come to Berkeley mid-'30s from Mississippi; it was popularised by Bo Diddley, but Otis cashed in with 'Willie And The Hand Jive' '58, a top ten R&B and pop hit: 'The Johnny Otis Show' had further Hot 100 entries 'Crazy Country Hop', 'Castin' My Spell' (vocal by Marci Lee), 'Mumblin' Mosie' '58-60, UK hits 'Ma He's Making Eyes At Me' and 'Bye Bye Baby' (vocals by Marie Adams) '57-8, all on Capitol.

He'd formed the Dig label to promote new talent, but had no luck; formed the Blues Spectrum label mid-'70s for compilations of Louis Jordan, Charles Brown, Johnny Otis, etc. He was active in state politics and became an ordained clergyman '75; he published a book Listen To The Lambs after the Watts riot '65, and the very valuable Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue '93. He had a daily disc jockey show and a weekly TV show for live music in L.A. '50s, in the '90s still broadcast weekly Saturday mornings in Berkeley and put on live shows at his family's organic market and deli in Sebastopol.

His album Cold Shot '68 on Kent had been the debut of 13-year-old Shuggie Otis, including the R&B hit 'Country Girl'. Compilations included Creepin' With The Cats on Ace (the Dig masters), two-LP set The Original Johnny Otis Show in Savoy Roots of Rock'n'Roll series (abridged on CD; Completer Disc completed that and two other Savoy compilations). Live At Monterey '70 (with Big Joe Turner, Roy Brown, Roy Milton, Ivory Joe Hunter, Pee Wee Crayton and others) was on Sony Legacy, plus The New Johnny Otis Show With Shuggie Otis on Alligator '82. Spirit Of The Black Territory Bands '92 on Arhoolie (nominated for a Grammy) re-created his roots with a superb big band, arranged by Shuggie and younger son Nicky on drums. Finally a 3-CD set The Complete Savoy Recordings compiled 77 tracks from '45-51, evidence that Otis was one of the inventors of rhythm and blues.