Testament to the full life of Johnny Otis
One common thread running through reflections of more than a dozen speakers at Saturday’s memorial service in Hollywood for Johnny Otis was that the influential R&B; musician, band leader, producer and disc jockey didn’t make friends so much as continually expand his extended family.
“My whole life with this family and with Johnny was ‘Wow!’ ” singer Barbara Morrison, who toured for 25 years with the Johnny Otis Show traveling revue, said from her wheelchair a few feet away from Otis’ wife of more than 70 years, Phyllis.
Otis, who died Jan. 17 at 90, was saluted as a Renaissance man, one whose commercial success in the music business from his 1958 hit “Willie and the Hand Jive” barely scratched the surface of his multifaceted passions and talents.
In addition to his own profile as an entertainer, the man born John Veliotes to Greek immigrant parents so wholeheartedly embraced the African American culture that surrounded him during his childhood in Berkeley that he identified himself as black and spent his long life fighting to promote African American artists and their music.
Altadena United Methodist Church pastor Yvonne Williams characterized the campaign as a spiritual mission for Otis: “He made music his offering for the salvation of America’s soul.”
She led the audience of a couple hundred family members, friends and admirers in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as “The Negro National Anthem.”
Tom Morgan, the former Capitol Records executive who signed Otis to his first recording contract, noted how prominently the concept of family figured into Otis’ biggest hit, citing lyrical references to names or relationships including “Willie, Millie, Willie Jr., papa, mama, Uncle Joe and sister Flo.”
Morgan also lauded Otis for helping resuscitate the career of swing-era saxophonist Ben Webster by giving him a job when Webster was down on his luck.
A program distributed at the ceremony included a quote from Bob Dylan: “Johnny’s career just dazzles the mind, from discovering Esther Phillips and Jackie Wilson to being a drummer, singer, piano player, band leader, hit maker right down to sculpting and painting. He even lost a seat for the California state Assembly. You can’t top that.”
Other speakers included former California Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally, who spoke of his close friendship with Otis -- “I’m probably the closest person to Johnny Otis with no musical talent,” he quipped; L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who reminisced about hearing Otis on the radio when he was growing up in South Central Los Angeles; Donto James, the son of singer Etta James, one of Otis’ many talent discoveries; longtime L.A. R&B; deejay Tom Reed; R&B; musician Billy Vera; and Portia Maultsby, a professor of ethnomusicology at Indiana University, whose African American archive houses the Johnny Otis collection of recordings, papers and memorabilia.
The private ceremony, held at the Local 47 Musicians Union Hall where Otis held a lifetime membership, began with a slide show highlighting various phases of his career and his connections with numerous artists, including Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke.
Also shown were examples of his latter-day work as a sculptor and painter, his ventures into organic farming and his efforts as a political cartoonist and a political activist, including a shot of him on a picket line outside a Woolworth’s on Crenshaw Boulevard during civil rights protests over the company’s segregationist practices in the 1950s and ‘60s.
As the photos were shown, his music blared over giant speakers flanking the stage. The songs included the hauntingly sensual, sax-driven instrumental “Harlem Nocturne,” which was Otis’ first hit in 1945, and “Willie and the Hand Jive,” which prompted several audience members to get out of their seats and into the aisles to do the hand-gesture routine from decades ago.
Tom McElheney was Otis’ radio sidekick during much of the 1980s and ‘90s, when he had moved from Southern California back to the Bay Area and hosted a show on KPFA, sister station of L.A. Pacific Radio outlet KPFK-FM (90.7).
“Johnny brought an element of real fun to what was a very serious political station,” said McElheney, who teaches high school English. “Our personalities were a great fit -- and that’s what’s going to be on my epitaph.”
Because music was first and foremost throughout most of Otis’ life, the last word was reserved for that art.
The testimonials were followed by a performance that stretched into the evening from a 10-member big band led by his grandson Lucky Otis, using the same set of vibraphones Otis used to play and the “Johnny Otis Show” music stands used by the five-member horn section.