Johnny Otis

January 20, 2012 by staff 

Johnny Otis, Radio host and producer Johnny Otis in the studio with son Shuggie, who became a rock and soul musician. Johnny Otis, the bandleader, pioneering producer, singer, songwriter and radio host who was at the forefront of the rhythm and blues movement, died at his home in the Los Angeles suburb of Altadena on Tuesday. He was 90.

Mr. Otis had been in poor health for several years, said his manager, Terry Gould.

Best known for his 1958 rock and roll spoof “Willie and the Hand Jive,” Mr. Otis, born John Veliotes in 1921 in Vallejo, was the son of Greek immigrants who ran a grocery store in Berkeley. Growing up in an integrated neighborhood made a big impression on him.

“Black culture captured me,” Mr. Otis said. “I loved it, and it was richer and more fulfilling and more natural. I thought it was mine.”

As a teen, he played drums with Count Otis Matthews’ West Oakland House Stompers. With his own band he scored his first hit, “Harlem Nocturne,” in 1945.

Mr. Otis went on to cut “Double Crossing Blues” with Esther Phillips; write “Every Beat of My Heart” for Gladys Knight & the Pips; and produce Big Mama Thornton’s recording of “Hound Dog,” which later became a hit for Elvis Presley.

Through his published reviews and radio and television appearances, Mr. Otis made it his mission to take black music to white audiences.

He discovered and promoted major R&B figures such as Etta James and Little Richard, and supervised recordings by the likes of Little Willie John, Charles Brown, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Johnny Ace.

Mr. Otis spent years as a disc jockey on KFOX in Los Angeles and later anchored a show on KPFA. He was a TV host, civil rights activist, record label owner and minister of his own church, and he taught at Vista Community College in Berkeley.

Mr. Otis also found time to work as deputy chief of staff for Mervyn Dymally when the Democrat served in the Assembly and state Senate, and as lieutenant governor and congressman.

Before retiring in 2005, Mr. Otis lived on a 5-acre Sebastopol fruit ranch that featured three life-size body casts of the women who used to sing with his band as the Three Tons of Joy.

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