EASY ED’S BROADSIDE: Johnny Otis and That Crazy Hand Jive
Johnny Otis (center), shown playing with his band The Johnny Otis Revue.
When Johnny Otis passed away on Jan. 17, 2012, the Los Angeles Times obituary described him as this: “singer, musician, composer, arranger, bandleader, talent scout, disc jockey, record producer, television show host, artist, author, journalist, minister, and impresario.” And over on the History of Rock website, they begin their biography of the man like this: “A pioneering figure in the development of R&B following the demise of the big bands in the late ’40s, Johnny Otis was the most prominent white figure in the history of black R&B.”
Ionnnis Alexandres Veliotes was born to Greek immigrant parents in the North Bay region of San Francisco in 1921, and he grew up in a black neighborhood of Berkeley, where his father owned a grocery store. In his biography, Midnight At The Barrelhouse, written by George Lipsitz, Otis explains his heritage and cultural identification this way: “Everybody I came into contact with as a kid, all my playmates were black. I was around thirteen when the ugly head of racism really reared up. I was told very diplomatically at school by a counsellor that I should associate more with whites. After that I left and never came back to school. I never felt white. I wouldn’t leave black culture to go to heaven. It’s richer, more rewarding and more fulfilling for me.”
During his teens he started playing the drums and eventually learned piano and vibraphone. In the late ’30s he made his professional debut with the West Oakland House Rockers, changed his name to Johnny Otis, and moved to Los Angeles, which he made his base of operations while playing in a number of big bands. Fronting his own band by 1945, he recorded several songs for the Excelsior label, and their version of “Harlem Nocturne” was popular enough to support several national tours.
In the late 1940s he opened the Barrelhouse Club in the Watts neighborhood of LA and picked up an A&R gig with King Records. At this point he made his transition from jazz and jump blues to becoming a pioneer in rhythm and blues, credited with discovering and working with Willie Mae Thornton, Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, The Robins (later becoming The Coasters), Hank Ballard. Mel Walker, and Little Esther Phillips. The Johnny Otis Rhythm and Blues Caravan he put together crisscrossed the country and was the forerunner of the later traveling rock and roll revues.
By 1950 Otis was recording under his own name, and he began producing sessions and leading the studio bands for Little Richard, Willie Mae Thornton, and Johnny Ace. He also wrote “The Wallflower” (aka “Dance with Me Henry”) with Etta James, which was an answer record to Ballard’s “Work With Me Annie,” and he co-authored “Hound Dog” with Thornton. In 1958 he wrote and recorded “Willie and The Hand Jive” for Capitol Records, using the “Bo Diddley beat” based on the phrase “shave and a haircut, two bits.”
History of Rock describes his stage shows in the late 1950s and early ’60s like this:
“They would open with him doing a solo on the drums and vibes that would last ten minutes before the rest of the band would come on stage. There were always female vocalists (Little Esther, Willie Mae Thornton, and Marie Adams) that could really shout the blues. They would then be followed by a male vocalist (Mel Walker) who was smooth with the ballads. The show climaxed with a vocal group, usually The Robins, followed by a number or two by the band with Otis frantically switching back and forth from the drums and vibes. All the while his dark Greek complexion led most in the audience to believe he was black.”
Following the Watts riots in 1965, Otis became very involved in the civil rights movement. He ran unsuccessfully for political office and then wrote the first of four books, Listen to the Lambs, which was a discussion of the significance of the riots. He was a radio disc jockey and later had his own television program. In the late ’60s he would tour with his son Shuggie Otis, who at 15 was an accomplished blues guitarist with a contract at Epic Records. Often joining his dad’s groups, Shuggie and Johnny were guests on Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats album, and below is from a gig they did with guitarist Roy Buchanan in 1971.
Johnny was ordained as a minister in the 1970s and opened a nondenominational church, working to help feed the homeless. He moved to Sonoma County and became an organic farmer in the ’90s, opening a grocery store to sell his produce. The store also doubled as a club where he and the family band performed, and he continued with his weekly radio show and occasional tours. During this period he also published three books: a musical memoir, Upside Your Head!: Rhythm And Blues On Central Avenue (1993); Colors And Chords (1995) which was devoted to his artworks; and Red Beans & Rice And Other Rock ‘n’ Roll Recipes (1997), a cookbook. He passed away in 2012, just three days before Etta James, his ’50s collaborator.
I’ve been wanting to write about Johnny Otis for a long time, and this serves merely as an introduction and thumbnail sketch of the man. Dave Alvin, who along with his brother Phil would frequent the black clubs on Central Avenue in Watts, has recorded a really nice recollection of Otis and those times, which you can watch here. Wish there were more live video clips of the man, but I’ll close this out with a profile that appeared on The Today Show in 1983. Hats off to reporter Boyd Matson for posting it and keeping the story and memory of Johnny Otis alive.
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboard and Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.