Johnny Otis dies at 90; R&B singer wrote ‘Willie and the Hand Jive’
Pioneering rhythm-and-blues singer, songwriter, drummer, bandleader and disc jockey Johnny Otis made the kind of conscious life choice early on that few people have the inclination, or circumstance, to carry out.
Born white, the son of Greek immigrant parents, and raised in a predominantly black neighborhood in Northern California in the 1920s, Otis decided as a youth that he’d rather be black.
FOR THE RECORD:
Johnny Otis: The obituary of pioneering R&B musician, producer and disc jockey Johnny Otis in the Jan. 19 LATExtra section said that Otis first came to Los Angeles to join Harlan Leonard’s Kansas City Rockers. The group’s name was the Kansas City Rockets. The obituary also said that Otis and his wife, Phyllis, had been married for 60 years. They were married for 70 years. —
The choice put him on a path to a life in music during which he created the sensually pulsing 1958 hit “Willie and the Hand Jive.” It also gave him a deep connection to black culture that helped him discover such future stars of R&B and rock as Etta James, Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Little Esther Phillips.
“Yes, I chose,” Otis told The Times in 1979, “because despite all the hardships, there’s a wonderful richness in black culture that I prefer.”
Otis died Tuesday in the Los Angeles area, where he had lived for much of his life, said Tom Reed, a black-music historian. He was 90.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, Otis continued leading a big band R&B, jazz, soul, gospel and roots-rock revue in recent years, literally and figuratively beating the drum for the music that fired his imagination.
“I get a wave of pride in America when I look back at what we’ve accomplished in the field of music,” Otis told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “People are going to wake up to this great reservoir of music we’ve created in America — cakewalks, one-steps, boogie-woogie, country and western. I had a bit to do with one of those traditions.”
“I’m not suggesting our music is the only music,” he told The Times in 1986 when the once-endangered musical style he helped create was staging a comeback, “but I am suggesting that there are certain elements in America’s culture that are so precious that it would be a shame for them to go down the drain.”
He was born John Veliotes on Dec. 28, 1921, in Vallejo, northeast of San Francisco, and was raised in Berkeley, where his father ran a grocery store in a largely black community.
“When I got near teen age, I was so happy with my friends and the African American culture that I couldn’t imagine not being part of it,” Otis told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1991.
He started playing drums with big bands and jazz combos, and in his early 20s came to L.A. to join Harlan Leonard’s Kansas City Rockers, the house band at Club Alabam on the thriving Central Avenue jazz-blues-R&B club scene.
“Man, you could go into one club and there’d be [jazz saxophone giant] Lester Young jamming, go into another and you’d find T Bone [Walker, the Texas blues guitarist and singer], and down the street Miles [Davis] would be blowing,” Otis said in 1979. “Yeah, L.A. was happening.”
But tough times in the late 1940s forced bandleaders to pare their large ensembles back to a small handful of players — the perfect size, as it turned out, for the new styles of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll that were emerging.
“To compensate for all the instruments we were eliminating, we had to put in some new ones, each with a fuller sound: an electric guitar, a blues guitar, a boogie piano,” Otis told The Times in 1984, and “the sound changed too, into more of a cross between swing and country blues.... We ended up creating a whole new art form: a hybrid music that became known as rhythm and blues.”
Otis scored a signature hit of that nascent style in 1946 with the moody, saxophone-driven instrumental “Harlem Nocturne,” which was revived in 1960 by the white New Jersey rock group the Viscounts.
At one point, Otis was asked to judge a talent competition in Detroit and selected three winners: Wilson, Ballard and Little Willie John. Otis’ talent, he once said, was being able to “see something before anyone else.”
He wrote the song that became James’ first charting hit — vaulting her to No. 1 on the R&B chart in 1955 — with “The Wallflower,” popularly known as “Roll With Me Henry.” It was a female-centric response to Ballard’s sexually charged hit “Work With Me Annie” that raised eyebrows for its frankness.
Then he came up with a variant on Bo Diddley’s signature 1955 hit “Bo Diddley” using the same five-count “shave-and-a-haircut, two-bits!” beat and created a smash of his own in “Willie and the Hand Jive.” It’s been recorded dozens of times by a wide variety of musicians, most notably by Eric Clapton in 1974.
Otis wrote other R&B hits, including “So Fine,” “Double Crossing Blues” and “All Nite Long,” and produced early recordings for Little Richard, Big Mama Thornton and Johnny Ace.
He also hosted early radio and television shows in L.A. and later guided new generations of listeners through music history on oldies radio shows at KPFK-FM (90.7) in L.A. and a sister station in the Bay Area.
With the British Invasion in the early 1960s, “the white boys from England came over with a recycled version of what we created. We were out of business, man,” Otis said in 1994.
He saw a brief revival of interest in original R&B in the late 1960s and 1970s, when he performed with a band that included his teenage son, Shuggie, on guitar. But with the arrival of disco, then punk, hard rock and heavy metal in the 1970s, Otis was effectively forced to retire.
He turned his home in the West Adams District into the nondenominational Landmark Church and became its pastor, often leading a choir that included some of the greatest voices in pop music, including James and Esther Phillips.
In 1968, he published the book “Listen to the Lambs,” a sociological critique he wrote in the wake of the Watts riots. He chronicled the music scene he knew so well in the 1994 book “Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue.” Otis even found his way into politics, serving as deputy chief of staff for Mervyn M. Dymally as the Democrat rose in state politics and served in the U.S. House of Representatives.
While cultivating his interest in painting and sculpture, Otis tended homegrown crops in Altadena and in Sebastopol in Northern California’s wine country. He also opened a short-lived grocery store and for a time marketed Johnny Otis Apple Juice.
“Today’s musicians are better technically,” Otis said in 1979, “but that’s not a virtue in itself. What’s important is the emotional impact.... Most rock or disco today doesn’t stir up anything in my heart — not the way a Picasso does, not the way the blues or gospel does.”
Otis and his wife of 60 years, Phyllis, had several children and grandchildren.
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