Born John Alexander Veliotes on December 28, 1921 in northern California to Greek immigrant parents, Johnny Otis had a profound impact on music and helped guide the industry from jazz to rhythm and blues and rock and roll. Eventually Otis came to be known as the “godfather of rhythm and blues.”
Otis was raised in a predominately black neighborhood in Berkeley, California, where his father owned and operated a grocery store. He was immersed in black culture from an early age, and grew to love it so much that he made the decision as a teenager to consciously identify with black culture and would often say he was “black by persuasion.”
Otis had a prolific career in music. He started playing drums with big bands and jazz combos in the San Francisco area before moving to Los Angeles in the mid 1940s to play with Harlan Leonard’s Kansas City Rockets. He soon formed his own band and recorded a hit song, “Harlem Nocturne,” which would be the first of many hit songs. Otis wrote and recorded others in the early 1950s including “Double Crossing Blues,” “Mistrustin’ Blues,”, and “Cupid’s Boogie,” all of which would all reach number one on the R&B charts. He is perhaps best known for the 1958 song “Willie and the Hand Jive.”
Otis also had a knack for discovering talent and was responsible for launching the careers of successful artists such as Big Mama Thornton, Jackie Wilson, Etta James, and Little Richard. By 1955, Otis started his own record label, Dig Records, and owned The Barrelhouse, a nightclub in Watts. Johnny was a disc jockey for many years on KPFK-FM, a Los Angeles radio station, and he also hosted his own television show in the 1950s. Otis’ son, Shuggie, became a successful blues guitarist, and father and son recorded an album together in 1982.
As his music career waned in the 1960s, Otis involved himself in other projects. He authored a book, Listen to the Lambs, which analyzed the impact of the riots on Watts in 1965. He became involved in the civil rights movement and politics, running unsuccessfully for a seat in the California State Assembly. He then served as deputy chief of staff to Mervyn M. Dymally, a Democratic California State Assembly who became the state’s first black Lieutenant Governor in 1974 and later served and the U.S. House of Representatives.
In the mid 1970s, Otis was ordained as a minister and opened the nondenominational Landmark Community Church in Los Angles. In the 1990s, he wrote three more books: a memoir of his life in music, a collection of his own artwork, and a cookbook. Toward the end of his life, Otis was an organic farmer and briefly tried to market Johnny Otis Apple Juice.
Johnny Otis was married to his wife, Phyllis, for 70 years, and they had four children and nine grandchildren. Otis died at his Altadena, California home on January 17, 2012 at the age of 90.