|11-14-2014, 05:05 PM||#21 (permalink)|
Join Date: Jun 2013
Johnny Otis deserves tremendous credit for helping to found rocknroll. He was a bandleader, drummer, vibes-player and talent scout. He brought up such talent as Etta James, Little Willie John, Hank Ballard, Big Jay McNeely, Little Esther, Big Mama Thornton and Jackie Wilson by holding talent shows and what not. He also discovered the singers who would later form the Coasters whom he hired as singers of his band which he founded in 1945 and which had contained such talent as Charles Brown, Illinois Jacquet and Wynonie Harris. Otis had a great love of blues and worked with such great talent as Johnny “Guitar” Watson (who originally started off as a pianist named Little John Watson). He wrote a great spate of songs for all his artists. He released several of his own records but is generally remembered today only for “Willie and the Hand Jive” which uses Bo Diddley’s shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits rhythm but was also the first artist to combine Latin musical flavors and instruments with blues with “Mambo Boogie” (1951).
Johnny Otis, ''Mambo Boogie'' (1951) - YouTube
Johnny Otis co-wrote and the played the drums on Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog” and his band provides the other instruments and the howls heard at the end. The other writers of the song were Lieber & Stoller. The three signed a contract as the writers of the song. When Lieber & Stoller re-wrote the song for Elvis (by stealing it from another band’s arrangement), they put themselves down as the sole authors thereby cutting Otis out of his share of the royalties. When he took them to court, a judge ruled in favor of the defendants saying they were minors at the time (both Lieber and Stoller were 17) and the contract with them was therefore null and void. Otis never forgave them.
Otis also wrote “Every Beat of My Heart” which was first recorded by the Royals in 1952 but became a hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips nine years later. He co-wrote Etta James’ first hit, “Roll With Me Henry” (addressed to Hank Ballard). Don D. Robey also hired Otis’s orchestra as the house band for the Peacock label and the Duke label. They backed Little Richard for “Little Richard’s Boogie” on the Peacock label before Penniman signed with Specialty and became a huge star. That’s Otis on the vibes:
LITTLE RICHARD BOOGIE with Johnny Otis Band 1955 - YouTube
The Johnny Otis orchestra played on most of Johnny Ace’s releases. Again Otis handles the vibes, Ace played all his own piano tracks:
JOHNNY ACE- NEVER LET ME GO - YouTube
Johnny Otis also hosted both radio and television programs as well as touring shows of blues and rocknroll artists and he sometimes performed in them. His resume of acts booked on all this shows is a who’s who of these genres from that period—every artist from Louis Jordan to Big Joe Turner to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. His radio and television shows contain hundreds of hours of interviews and performances with some of the greatest black talent from America and serves as a database for the Archives of African American Music and Culture at the University of Indiana.
Otis also published a book, “Listen to the Lambs,” concerning racial relations in the U.S. by studying the race riots of 1965. This has caused a lot of people to believe that Johnny Otis was black. He was not. He was Greek-American. He was born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes in Vallejo, California in 1921. At 15, he became a musician and began playing jazz and blues music in various otherwise all-black bands. He loved African-American music forms and was angered by racial injustice. He wrote, "As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black." So after entering music, he lived as a black person of that time and did it so well that most everybody assumed he was black. Etta James once stated of her and her fellow artists, “We all thought he was black! I mean, he ate chitlins and everything!”
Johnny Otis is a huge force in the formation of rocknroll and while plenty of white artists, scouts and producers also qualify, none did it as a black man other than Otis. Behind Otis’s finding and promoting of black talent, we can see a white man struggling to present to white America the value and worth of their fellow black citizens. His presence in early rocknroll is so pervasive that one can scarcely come across a collection of such music that Otis was not involved with in some way. Johnny Otis died in 2012 at the age of 90.
Otis's son, Shuggie, is also a performer who has had a long career since he first started performing and touring with his father.