Johnny Otis

Johnny Otis

The New Johnny Otis Show With Shuggie Otis marked the return of one of the true Renaissance men of rhythm and blues.  In a career that spanned 60 years, Johnny Otis played almost every possible musical role - musician, bandleader, arranger, songwriter, producer, booking agent, tour promoter, road manager, record label operator, publisher, disk jockey, and television personality.  And in his spare time, he played plenty of non-musical roles too - author, columnist, politician, actor, printer, painter, sculptor, even breeder of rare birds. 

Otis grew up in a tough black ghetto of Berkeley, California, though his parents were immigrant Greek-Americans.  His first instrument was drums, and his first love was big band swing music.  By the time he was twenty, he was paying his dues on the road with swing bands, touring the Midwest.  He ended up in Los Angeles with Harlan Leonard's Rockets, the legendary Kansas City band, at the Club Alabam in Watts.  Within a few years, he was leading the Club Alabam house band, now the Johnny Otis Orchestra, a big band he modeled after Count Basie's (which included "borrowing" some of Basie's arrangements and band members).

It was just after World War II, and little independent records companies were springing up all over the country to fill the demand for black music that wasn't being met by the major labels.  Otis wasn't "technically" black, but he had a huge local following in the black community of Los Angeles; it was only a matter of time till he found his way into the studio.  With his second session, he scored a national R&B hit, the instrumental Harlem Nocturne, on Excelsior Records.  It put The Johnny Otis Show on the road for over a year.  (Incidentally, Harlem Nocturne, with its slow-drag beat, became an all-time favorite for strippers).

By 1948, the sound of black music was changing.  The big bands were breaking up, and smaller groups with honking saxes, electric guitars and shouting blues singers were taking over.  The music was still being called "blues and rhythm" by the record business magazines, but on the street it was called "rock and roll."  Johnny Otis was in the forefront of the L.A. rock and roll scene.  He opened his legendary Barrelhouse Club in Watts, with his nine-member band (Otis doubling on drums, piano and vibes).  His Thursday night talent shows drew future stars from all up and down the West Coast.  Otis scored a contract with Savoy Records (who have reissued two sets of his early 1950s material) and wrote and produced an unprecedented series of rock and roll hits with his red-hot band and young vocalists.  At one point in the early '50s, Otis and his artists occupied four of the top eight slots in the Black Top 10.  His stars were the 13-year-old Little Esther Phillips, balladeer Mel Walker and a vocal group called The Robins who later gained fame as The Coasters.  Esther and Mel became famous for their novelty duet records like Mistrustin' Blues and Wedding Boogie. 

It didn't take Otis long to realize that his all-star shows at the Barrelhouse could be exported to the rest of the country.  He organized something new:  "The California Rhythm & Blues Caravan" that crisscrossed the country by bus for four years, playing everywhere from the Apollo Theatre to Deep South fairgrounds.  With its "house band" and host of singers and soloists, it was a style of tour that was constantly imitated in the early years of rock and roll.

As he picked up new talent on the road and made contact with more labels, Otis produced not only for Savoy, but also for Federal, King, Duke (for whom he produced Big Mama Thornton's original Hound Dog), Dig, Eldo, Modern, Kent, and Aladdin.  In the course of a few years, he discovered, produced and wrote songs for Etta James, Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, Hank Ballard & The Midnighters, and Gladys Knight (for whom he wrote Every Beat Of My Heart).

Finally coming off the road in 1954, Otis began a career as a DJ on KFOX in L.A.  It quickly grew into one of the first television rock and roll dance shows, The Johnny Otis Show.  With radio and TV shows, Otis finally had the chance to bring black musicians to a white audience as well as a black one.  His all-time hit, Willie and The Hand Jive, cut in 1958 for Capitol, was a hit on both the black and white charts.  It also scored him a role in the long-forgotten movie, Juke Box Rhythm.

In the early 60's, Otis' interests turned away from music.  He started a column for the Los Angeles Sentinel, writing on civil rights and black consciousness.  He ran for the California Assembly (but his insistence on running under his given name, Johnny Veliotes, may have cost him the election).  He began working for a crusading black Assemblyman named Mervyn Dymally, who later became a U.S. Congressman.  In 1965, his first book, Listen To The Lambs, was published.  He even picked up another acting role, in Play Misty For Me.

But Otis never gave up his music entirely.  He had made another talent discovery, right in his own home: his son, the amazing teenage guitarist, Shuggie Otis.  He and Shuggie went into Kent Studios with Mighty Mouth Evans and cut a light-hearted album produced a hit single, Country Girl. CBS signed Johnny Otis as a producer and artist, and Epic released two albums.  Epic signed Shuggie, too, and built Johnny his own studio.  The Johnny Otis Show toured Europe, Asia and Africa and headlined the Ann Arbor Blues Festival.  Meanwhile, Shuggie fell in with Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, and Al produced his first album, Al Kooper Introduces Shuggie Otis in 1969, when Shuggie was 14.  Shuggie was hailed as a child prodigy, and three more albums followed on Epic.  But the pressure of being a teenage "star" took its toll, and Shuggie retired from touring in 1975.  He continued to cut for his father's tiny Blues Spectrum label, but only as a sideman. 

In 1981, Alligator president Bruce Iglauer convinced Otis to record a new album, and in 1982 Alligator released The New Johnny Otis Show With Shuggie Otis. The album brought Johnny back into the studio as a producer, drawing together a host of all-star musicians. Johnny arranged the album like an old-time R&B review, putting the spotlight on half a dozen singers and players, from veteran drummer Earl Palmer to brilliant young vocalist Charles Williams. Shuggie handled all the guitar parts, and Johnny sang, played piano and vibes, and led the festivities. The New Johnny Otis Show With Shuggie Otis garnered rave reviews and was nominated for a Grammy.

Otis has been inducted into both the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. These days, he has his own Saturday morning radio show on Berkeley, California's KPFA. He also teaches a course exploring the history of African American music--"Jazz, Blues, & Popular Music in American Culture"-- at the University of California at Berkeley. And he's still active in the studio and as a performer.

--Johnny Otis passed away on January 17, 2012.