The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Johnny Otis, the Godfather of R&B
Johnny Otis, who has died aged 90, was the Greek-American bandleader who pioneered a style of Rhythm & Blues in California — and launched (or relaunched) the careers of half a dozen R&B superstars in the process. John Morthland heard Johnny's fascinating story for Creem back in the fall of 1971——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
When the Johnny Otis Show appears on stage, it brings years and years of rhythm and blues history with it.
There's piano and vibes player Otis himself, who started out in the early 40's as a drummer leading a swing jazz band, then moved into R&B after somebody — Otis credits Roy Milton — "accidentally" discovered that music. He soon became something of a musical catalyst, and the number of people Johnny Otis has introduced to us is nothing short of fantastic: Hank Ballard, Big Mama Willie Mae Thornton, Little Willie John, Jackie Wilson, Etta James, Little Esther...to name but a handful.
Then there's Big Joe Turner, the Boss of the Blues, who became famous, after nearly two decades of singing, as the man who did 'Shake Rattle and Roll' before Bill Haley — and you know what happened after that! Ask Big Joe and he'll tell you he was "doing rock and roll a long time before that, 'cept they didn't call it rock and roll." There's also Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, whose 'Cherry Red' made his name a household word in the post-war ghettoes, right up there with Wynonie Harris, Charles Brown, Percy Mayfield, Bullmoose Jackson, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Turner.
Add to that 17-year-old guitarist Shuggie Otis (Johnny's son), a bassist and drummer, a four-man horn section, two more solo vocalists, and a four-girl singing group called the Otisettes, and you've got a 16-piece traveling show.
Otis brought his revue to Berkeley this Spring to play at the University of California. The afternoon before the concert, he relaxed on his hotel bed and talked a blue streak about the last 25 years of music, about his experiences in electoral politics, about how he was always considered "just another black bandleader" until he revealed in his book, Listen to the Lambs, that he was actually white, and of Greek ancestry.
The story actually begins right there in Berkeley, where the Veliotes (his real last name) family lived when Johnny was a wee child. His father ran a corner grocery store in the black ghetto. In his book, Otis talks about how he adopted the black lifestyle, despite warnings from his parents and teachers and everybody else who was white, because he found in it "that elusive quality called soul" that he says simply doesn't exist in the white community. From then on, he has moved almost exclusively in black circles.
It was, he says, his adoption of the black lifestyle, that led him to take up black music, and not the other way around. At any rate, before he was out of high school, Otis was sneaking off to Oakland with his school chums to play the teen dances. A friend named Otis Williams was the leader of his first band.
"Otis was a great singer and barrelhouse piano player," Johnny recalls. "He didn't wanna have a group to go be a big success commercially, he wanted to have a group so we could go play at the little hops in West Oakland and maybe make us a little bread to get us a little wine. I'd liked Gene Krupa and the great Joe Jones with Count Basie, so I liked the idea of being a drummer."