Born John Veliotes, December 28, 1921, in Vallejo, California, the son of Greek immigrants; married; wife's name, Phyllis; children: John, Jr. (Shuggie); Nicky; Daryl Jon; Janice; and Laura. Addresses: Office--7105 Baker Ln., Sebastopol, CA 95472.
Johnny Otis, son of Greek immigrants, grew up in an ethnically mixed neighborhood in Vallejo, California during the 1920s. Even before falling in love with the black musical traditions, Otis identified with the culture of his black childhood friends and came to think of himself as black. As he wrote in the preface to his 1968 book Listen to the Lambs--penned largely in reaction to the Watts riots of 1965--"I reacted to the way of life, the special vitality, the atmosphere of the black community. . . this difficult to describe quality. . . popularly known as 'soul.'"
Johnny Otis lived the life of soul at the center of black music for starting in the 1940s. In 1939, having quit high school, Otis heard Count Basie at the San Francisco World's Fair and became interested in music. After taking up the drums, Otis played boogie-woogie and blues with a local Berkeley band, gradually moving on to regional bands and playing throughout the west. By this time he had married a black woman named Phyllis Walker, a sweetheart since high school and in 1943, Otis organized a group named after himself and partner Preston Love, the Otis Love Band.
The Otis Love Band worked at a club in Nebraska for a while but Otis soon left to play drums for Harlan Leonard at Los Angeles' Club Alabam. By 1945, Otis formed his first big band (sixteen pieces) to serve as the club's house ensemble. Otis also worked as a studio drummer, making recordings with various artists including Lester Young and Charles Brown. In 1946 Otis had his first hit record with a version of Earle Hagen's "Harlem Nocturne." That same year Otis' big band toured the country with the Inkspots.
By the time Otis' band returned home in 1947, the hey-day of the big band had already passed while audiences rushed to listen to the blues. Otis, losing no time, trimmed down his crew to a smaller combo but kept the trombone, trumpet, and two saxes. "What you had was a small big band playing blues and that sound became R&B," Otis stated in an interview for the Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul. In 1948, Otis' band opened the Barrel House Club in the Watts section of Los Angeles. From the many black R&B acts at that club, Johnny Otis put together what eventually became known as "The Johnny Otis Show." This group, on the power of singers like Little Esther Phillips, Mel Walker, Devonia "Lady Dee" Williams and others, hit the R&B top forty charts an impressive 15 times between 1950 and 1952.
Otis' knowledge of R&B music, his connections and his popularity made him a natural promoter of the music he loved. Prompted by his desire to spend more time with his family, Otis quit touring in 1955. He became a Los Angeles disc jockey with an immensely popular radio show which led to a television show, and later started his own record label, Dig Records. He ran both the television and radio show out of an office building where, as George Lipsitz noted in an introduction to Otis' 1993 book Upside Your Head, Otis "continued to record hit records himself and to serve as a talent scout for other labels such as Don Robey's Peacock Records from Houston."
As the racial climate of the 1950s and the aversion to rock and roll began to merge in Los Angeles, rock and roll shows were eventually forced from the city by police pressure. The El Monte Legion Stadium, outside the city limits, became the site of a series for legendary rock and roll concerts by Otis and other performers. But in the overtly racist and frightened atmosphere of the times, this too proved intolerable to the powers that be; they revoked a stadium dance license granted to Otis' then partner Hal Zeiger, only relenting thanks to pressure from the ACLU and the NAACP.
At the same time attempts were made to crush the live performances, major labels recognized the profit potential and moved into the R&B arena. Otis succumbed to the money offered and signed with Capitol Records. There he recorded the song "Willie and the Hand Jive" in 1958, possibly the biggest hit of his career. Yet Otis professed to be generally unhappy with this move to Capitol, having abandoned his black roots in favor of making "contrived rock and roll shit" as he told Lipsitz. Other forces, namely that of the British rock invasion, spelled the end of the R&B era.
During the subsequent decade, Otis served his chosen community in non-musical ways. For ten years he acted as deputy chief of staff to a politician named Mervin Dymally. Dymally served in the California State legislature and eventually U.S. Congress. Otis also ministered, via his nondenominational Landmark Community Church, in south central Los Angeles. This church would remain active until the mid-1980s. In the late 1960s Otis, together with his guitar-playing son Johnny Jr. (called "Shuggie"), began making records again starting with Cold Shot. During the 1970s Otis also continued to produce, efforts of this time including albums of Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker.
The late 1980s and early 1990s found Otis as active as ever: selling an organic line of fruit juice, making radio broadcasts, and painting and sculpting works that reflected his love of African American culture. Further, Otis continued to tour with a 13 person band whose attraction was no doubt in part nostalgic. A revival of interest in 1950s R&B prompted Capitol Records to reissue Otis' work for that label, and Arhoolie, a record company long-interested in preserving American music, put out Otis' Spirit of the Black Territory Bands in 1993. Through this album, listeners may get a sense of Otis' music during the 1940s and visit a vanished era.
by Joseph M. Reiner
Johnny Otis's Career
Co-founder of the Otis-Love Band, 1943.formed first big band in 1945; recorded first hit record, "Harlem Nocturne," 1946; formed the Johnny Otis Show, 1948; quit touring in 1955 and became a disc jockey and began a record label, Dig Records; signed with the Capitol label in the late 50s and wrote and recorded his biggest hit, "Willie and the Hand Jive"; appointed deputy chief of staff for California congressman, Mervin Dymally; founded and ministered at his Landmark Community Church in Los Angeles; continues to record and tour.
- Selective Works
- Singles "Harlem Nocturne," Excelsior, 1945.
- "Mistrustin' Blues," Savoy, 1950.
- "Cupid's Boogie," Savoy, 1950.
- "Deceivin' Blues," Savoy, 1950.
- "Freight Train Boogie," Regent, 1950.
- "Love Will Break Your Heart," Savoy, 1951.
- "Gee Baby," Savoy, 1951.
- "All Night Long," Savoy, 1951.
- "Call Operator 210," Mercury, 1952.
- "Willie and the Hand Jive," Capitol, 1958.
- "Country Girl," Kent, 1968.
- Albums Harlem Nocturne Excelsior, 1946.
- Rock and Roll Hit Parade, Dig, 1957.
- The Johnny Otis Show, Capitol, 1958.
- Cold Shot Kent, 1969.
- Cuttin' Up Epic, 1970.
- The Johnny Otis Show Live at Monterey, Epic, 1971.
- The New Johnny Otis Show, Alligator, 1981.
- The Capitol Years, Capitol, 1988.
- Spirit of the Black Territory Bands (Johnny Otis and His Orchestra) Arhoolie, 1992.
- Too Late to Holler, Night Train/City Hall, 1995.
- Hildebrand, Lee and Mary Lovelace O'Neal, Colors and Chords: The Art of Johnny Otis, Pomegranate Artbooks, 1995.
- Otis, Johnny, Listen to the Lambs, Norton & Co., 1968.
- Otis, Johnny, Upside Your Head, Wesleyan University Press, 1993.
- Pareles, Jon and Patricia Romanowski, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
- Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Roll, St. Martin's Press, 1989.
- Periodicals DownBeat, March, 1993.