By Kirk Silsbee
Rhythm and blues giant Johnny Otis passed away on Tuesday in Altadena. He was 90. At times a bandleader, talent scout, club owner, and broadcaster, among other titles, his caravan tours in the 1950s helped popularize R&B throughout the country. His influence on the genre is incalculable.
A native of Vallejo, California born John Veliotes, Otis was a Greek-American who was taken with black culture and music early in his life. He played drums with a blues-based band led by pianist Count Otis Mathews as a teenager and the die was cast; Johnny essentially lived the rest of his life as a black musician.
In 1943, Otis was a member of Lloyd Hunter's band in Omaha, when Nat 'King' Cole told him a drum chair needed filling in L.A. He joined Harlan Leonard's Rockets at the Club Alabam, the jewel of Central Avenue.
Eventually, Otis was asked to form his own band for the club. He modeled the Johnny Otis Orchestra after Count Basie's Band, a swinging jazz outfit. Their first record yielded “Harlem Nocturne,” a moody antecedent to the exotica craze, which became an anthem for strippers everywhere.
Along with bandleaders like Joe Liggins and Roy Milton, and guitarist T-Bone Walker, Otis coalesced the music that would become rhythm and blues. Post-war hard times forced him to cut down to eight pieces, which was perfect for the blues and comic production numbers played at his Barrelhouse Club in Watts. It was the first R&B club anywhere and drew singers like Mel Williams, Marie Adams, The Robins (before becoming The Coasters), and a 13-year-old named Little Esther, who sang like Dinah Washington.
Recording for the Savoy label, Otis and his troupe had many national hits like “Double Crossing Blues.” On the road, The Johnny Show was a magnet for young talent; he gave a leg up to folks like Etta James, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, Little Willie John and Linda Hopkins.
Back in L.A., Otis spun R&B discs over KFOX and hosted a TV show on KTTV that had guests including Ray Charles, the Coasters, Sam Cooke, Ike and Tina Turner, The Drifters, Fats Domino and the Everly Brothers. He attracted white audiences at El Monte Legion Stadium, and Otis came out with the rock and roll classic “Willie and the Hand Jive.” “Johnny was definitely aiming at those white kids with that record,” says producer Tom Morgan. “Capitol Records didn't do much for it; the record sold itself.”
The British Invasion of the '60s stopped Otis's musical life cold; he turned to painting, sculpting and raising chickens. In 1970, he hosted a live music special on KCET with T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner, Cleanhead Vinson, Little Esther and Roy Milton, with a crack band anchored by Johnny's son, the 16 year-old guitarist Shuggie Otis. It revitalized all of their careers and began an r 'n' b revival that took Otis all over the country and to Europe.
In 1982 Otis founded the Landmark Church in Los Angeles and for ten years he ran the swingingest services in town. His sermons were light on theology and heavy on music. On any given Sunday, Landmark might feature musicians like organist Jimmy Smith or singer Barbara Morrison.
He leaves behind his wife of 70 years, Phyllis, four children, nine grandchildren, eight great grandchildren and one great-great grandchild.