Johnny Otis, “the godfather of rhythm & blues”, passed away in his Los Angeles home on Tuesday, January 17 at the age of 90, as reported by Stereogum. Otis wrote the R & B classic “Willie and the Hand Jive”, and was instrumental in sharing and exposing black music to white audiences as a band leader and host, and is also known for penning “Every Beat of My Heart”, which became a hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips.
Otis, who was born John Veliotes to Greek immigrants in 1921, grew up in a black section of Berkley, and found he identified more with their culture than his own. He immersed himself in this culture, changing his name to Johnny Otis whilst still a teenager, and even after achieving fame his dark hair and skin fooled many into believing he was black just like his bandmates.
Otis had his first hit, “Harlem Nocturne”, in 1945 while leading his own band.In 1950, 10 of his songs made the Billboard R&B charts, and his classic “Willie and the Hand Jive” went on the sell 1.5 million copies and was covered years later by Eric Clapton.
The legendary bandleader had an ear for talent as well, implementing into his bands other legendary R&B figures like Etta James, Hank Ballard, Big Mama Thorton and The Robins (who would later become The Coasters). He produced Thorton’s original hit, “Hound Dog”, a song that would later be forever memorialized by a velvet-voiced Mississippi boy named Elvis Presley.
Otis considered himself a curator of black music, with his sole goal to introduce and share the music with white audiences.
“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,” he once said, according to the Associated Press.
In addition to his sons, Shuggie and Nicky, Otis is survived by his wife, Phyllis, his daughters Janet and Laura, and several grandchildren.
Mxdwn would like to take this moment to extend our sympathies to the family and friends of Johnny Otis.