The white ethnic kid loved all things black and wanted to be part of this very coolest subculture. That’s been a familiar American dream ever since the birth of rock ‘n roll. The impulse was less common in the 1930s, when the U.S. was still segregated, officially or otherwise. But Ioannis Veliotes, the son of Greek immigrants, had to answer the pounding song in his heart. “As a kid,” he later said, “I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black.” Raised in the Negro section of Berkeley, Cal., where his father owned a grocery store, Veliotes grew his patented mustache and soul patch, joined Count Otis Matthews’ band as a drummer and, with help from his swarthy Hellenic complexion, pretty much passed for black. He changed his name, too, to Johnny Otis.
Later, folks called him the Godfather of Rhythm & Blues. They paid him that tribute again on Tuesday, when he died at 90 in Los Angeles.
Graybeards who were no-beards in the early Age of Rock may remember Otis as a one-hit wonder. “Willie and the Hand Jive” — a novelty dance tune, about Way Out Willie who “did that hand jive with his feet” and his son Little Willie Jr. who “did that hand jive on TV” — was a summer sensation in 1958. The kids on Bandstand mimicked its manual semaphores and danced to its perky rhythm, eerily similar to Bo Diddley’s signature chugging backbeat. Did Otis filch Mr. Diddley’s shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits syncopation? No, because he’d been gunning that groovy riff since he was in the Matthews band, at the Count’s suggestion. Innovation in subterranean pop music is often communal. To put that in English: everybody steals from everyone else.
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“Hand Jive” was Otis’s only top-10 single, but that’s not why he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. Graduating from drummer to bandleader in 1945, when he enjoyed a hit with Earle Hagen’s “Harlem Nocturne,” he blossomed into a race-music impresario. As the Big Band sound waned in popularity, orchestra leaders were forced to reduce their manpower; Otis dropped some of the horns and added guitars, helping to plant seeds for the hybrid sound that would become rock ‘n roll. Just as important, his sensitive ear heard something special in the raw artistry of young performers; he would hire them to sing with his band or put their stirrings on wax. That’s how Otis discovered the first generation of R&B performers to cross over into mainstream suburbs, juke boxes and sock hops. He promoted or produced records by Little Richard, Etta James, Hank Ballard, Esther Phillips, Jackie Wilson, Johnny Ace, Little Walter and the L.A. quartet The Robins, later known as The Coasters. Practically the whole soul gang was his.
For Ballard’s first group, The Royals, Otis wrote the sweetly doo-wopping “Every Beat of My Heart,” which in 1961 became the breakthrough song for Gladys Knight & the Pips. When his protégé Ballard had a smash with the raunchy “Work With Me, Annie,” Otis devised an answer song, “The Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry)”, that became James’s first hit; Richard Berry, composer of “Louie Louie,” sang backup. (Watered down into “Dance With Me Henry,” a cover by Georgia Gibbs, the number went to the top five on the white people’s charts.) In 1952 he produced Big Mama Thornton’s original recording of “Hound Dog,” the Leiber-Stoller raunch-blues tune that Elvis Presley ginned up into a No. 1 hit four years later.
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The credit on the record label often read only “The Johnny Otis Show’ — a typical citation for bandleaders of the time. It’s true that Otis the Greek was the boss of these black acts, but he didn’t act like a plantation massah. He was less exploiter than cheerleader, happiest when launching a new act, then letting it fly away to stardom. Indeed, his unhappiest time was when “Willie and the Hand Jive” briefly made him a rock and roll headliner. “My Capitol Records time was very lucrative in dollars and cents,” he recalled in George Lipsitz’s book Midnight At the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story, “but very negative creatively. I tried to chase the almighty dollar and listened to bad advice from profit-motivated sources when I should have been my own Black self…” (The reader is forgiven for raising an ironic eyebrow, but Otis meant it.)
As hitmakers, that inaugural R&B crossover generation eventually gave way to Brill Building pop, the British invasion, folk rock, hard rock, disco and other pop genres that Otis the purist disdained. But the man couldn’t stop producing music. As the Los Angeles Times obit notes, “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 [Etta] James and Esther Phillips.” (What a joyful noise that must have been.) He worked in the California Statehouse for Democratic Congressman Mervyn Dymally. Returning to his father’s roots, Otis ran a grocery store selling organic produce grown by one of his sons. Another son, Shuggie, was a pop singer and songwriter in the ’70s.
Otis wasn’t his family’s only emissary to an exotic culture: his younger brother, Nicholas Veliotes, served as Ambassador to Jordan and Egypt in the Carter and Reagan Administrations. But Johnny Otis found his teeming world of music in his Berkeley neighborhood and on the streets of L.A. In his eighties, as a radio DJ, he was still playing the sounds he loved and nurtured. You can’t say the man wasn’t true to the objects of his adoration: at his deathbed was Phyllis Otis, his wife of 70 years.