Today we remember the late, great Johnny Otis. Mr. Otis passed away this week at the age of 90 and is widely recognized as the “godfather of rhythm and blues.” Johnny was a musician, bandleader, songwriter, impresario, disc jockey and talent scout. He brought together the discipline of big band jazz with the raw urgency of gospel music and the blues. This would end up serving as the foundation for rock ‘n’ roll.
Johnny was born the son of Greek immigrants who ran a grocery store in Vallejo, California. Although not black, he found himself a part of the African-American community and considered himself “black by persuasion.” “Genetically, I’m pure Greek,” he told The San Jose Mercury News in 1994. “Psychologically, environmentally, culturally, by choice, I’m a member of the black community.” His first hit came in the form of “Harlem Nocturne,” an instrumental song written for a 16-piece big band in 1945. As big bands went out of fashion, Otis stripped his band down to a few horns and a rhythm section. Within no time, he and his band began to pulsate on the rhythm and blues scene. In 1948 he and a partner opened a nightclub, the Barrelhouse, in the Watts section of Los Angeles.
From 1950 to 1952 Mr. Otis had 15 singles on Billboard’s rhythm and blues Top 40, including “Double Crossing Blues,” which was No. 1 for nine weeks. Otis’ biggest hit came with 1958’s “Willie and the Hand Jive,” which has been covered by many artists. Johnny also turned to radio and became a D.J. on the Los Angeles-area radio station KFOX. He was an instant success, and soon had his own local television show as well. He had a weekly program on the Pacifica Radio Network in California from the 1970s until 2005. In later life, he became a political activist and minister, as well as an organic farmer. His son, Shuggie Otis, is an accomplished guitarist with several albums to his name.
“Society wants to categorize everything, but to me it’s all African-American music. 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.” – Johnny Otis
Johnny performed for many years and ushered in talent from around the country with his radio and television programs. He helped promote Etta James, Jackie Wilson, Esther Phillips and Big Mama Thornton — whose hit recording of “Hound Dog,” made in 1952, four years before Elvis Presley’s, was produced by Mr. Otis and featured him on drums. Below is a nice clip of Johnny Otis from the early 70s with his teenage son, Shuggie and Roy Buchanan playing “Sweet Home Chicago / Bye Bye Baby.” Unfortunately the video is a bit out of sync, but it’s worth it for the performance.