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Johnny Otis: Singer, songwriter and bandleader who popularised the hand jive


Johnny Otis was one of the most important figures in American black music, working as a songwriter, pianist, drummer, arranger and bandleader. He discovered many of the best rhythm and blues stars, including Little Willie John, Etta James and Esther Phillips. He was an extraordinary personality, all the more extraordinary for not being black.

Johnny Otis was born Ionannis Alexandres Veliotes, the son of a Greek immigrant who ran a grocery story in the black neighbourhood of Berkeley, California. He experienced both black and Greek culture and he decided when only a teenager that he would live his life within the black community. "Two of my best friends are white," he would joke. "My mother and father." He had a dark complexion and many would have assumed that he was black.

Otis began his musical career in 1939 as a drummer with Count Otis Matthew's West Oakland House Rockers. Then, in 1943, at the suggestion of Nat "King" Cole, he moved to Los Angeles and played drums with Harlan Leonard's orchestra. By 1945, Otis had his own band and he had his first chart success with the instrumental "Harlem Nocturne". His band also backed Wynonie Harris and Charles Brown on bookings and record dates, but he soon found that a 17-piece band was not financially viable and cut it down to a small unit.

A keen entrepreneur, Otis opened his own club, The Barrelhouse, in Watts, Los Angeles in 1947, and he signed the 14-year-old Esther Phillips when she won a talent contest at the club. In 1950 the Johnny Otis Quinette, with Phillips and the Robins (who became the Coasters), topped the US Rhythm & Blues charts for nine weeks with "Double Crossing Blues". He then had a succession of hit records, often using Phillips and Mel Walker as vocalists as he felt his own voice was not particularly distinctive.

In 1950 alone, Otis had 10 records on the Rhythm & Blues charts, including three No 1s. As a result, he toured with his California Rhythm & Blues Caravan. It was gruelling work and they rarely earned more than $600 a night.

In 1953, Otis arranged the original version of "Hound Dog" with the formidable Big Mama Thornton, later a signature song for Elvis Presley. Although the song was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Otis added his name to the credits, which prompted litigation. In the same year, he also made some early recordings with Little Richard, including "Directly from My Heart to You".

In 1955, Otis wrote an answer version to Hank Ballard's "Work with Me, Annie", which he called "Roll with Me Henry", and recorded it with Etta James. It was another Rhythm & Blues No 1. Later modified to "Dance With Me Henry", it became a huge pop hit for Georgia Gibbs.

Otis presented a weekly TV programme, The Johnny Otis Show, in Los Angeles for eight years. Otis had a distinctive look – a moustache and small beard, which was copied by Frank Zappa because Otis "looked cool".

In 1957, Otis arranged to make a live album for Capitol Records, but the crowd was too loud and boisterous; instead, they made a second recording in the theatre without the audience. However, one track from the original recording was left on the album and released as a single. It was a revival of the standard "Ma (He's Making Eyes At Me)", with vocals from Marie Adams and the Three Tons of Joy. As a single, the record did little in America, but it was only kept from the top in the UK by Harry Belafonte's "Mary's Boy Child". The follow-up, "Bye Bye Baby", with vocals from Adams and Otis, made the Top 20.

In 1958, Otis wrote a rock'n'roll song, "Willie and the Hand Jive", based on the "Bo Diddley beat". It became a US Top 10 hit and was covered successfully in the UK by Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Since then, the song has been recorded by Eric Clapton, Kim Carnes, Levon Helm and George Thorogood. The hand jive is often seen in films and plays about the 1950s. Otis then wrote companion songs, "Willie Did the Cha Cha" and "Hand Jive One More Time".

Other records from the Johnny Otis Show included "Three Girls Named Molly (Doin' the Hully Gully)" and "Mumblin' Mosie", which was also recorded by Cliff Richard. His record proved to be controversial, as it was argued that Richard was mocking a girl for stuttering. Otis wrote "Every Beat of My Heart", the record which established Gladys Knight and the Pips in the US.

Around this time, Otis damaged three fingers in his right hand and came out of music. He ran as a Democrat for the California State Assembly and later became the chief of staff for a congressman. Otis wrote a book about the race riots, Listen to the Lambs (1968), while his brother, Nicholas, became a US Ambassador to Jordan and to Egypt.

In 1969, Otis reformed his band with his 16-year-old son, Shuggie, on lead guitar, and he made two albums – Cold Shot and a collection of (very) dirty songs, For Adults Only, as Snatch and the Poontangs. Snatch was the vocalist Delmar Evans, who turned what could have been an embarrassing record into good rhythm and blues.

In 1971, Otis released the classic double-album Live At Monterey! on which his band worked with Roy Milton, Big Joe Turner, Charles Brown and Esther Phillips. In 1975, Otis had some radio play with the single "Jaws", a song taking its lead from the film.

In the 1990s Otis bought a farm and opened the Johnny Otis Market-Deli Cafe in Sebastopol, California. He was the pastor of the Landmark Community Gospel Church and carried out charity work. Otis broadcast a weekly rhythm and blues show from Sebastopol, only retiring in 2006. He wrote a memoir, Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue (1993), and his paintings and sculptures are featured in the book Colors and Chords – The Art of Johnny Otis (1995).

Otis was honoured in his later years, but his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 was in a non-performing category. Last week he was featured by Suzi Quatro for the BBC Radio 2 programme Pioneers of Rock.

Spencer Leigh

Ionannis Alexandres Veliotes (Johnny Otis), songwriter and bandleader: born Vallejo, California 28 December 1921; married 1941 Phyllis Walker; died Los Angeles 17 January 2012.