RIP, Johnny Otis

A giant of American popular music died on January 17 at the age of 90.

Johnny Otis discovered, produced, recorded Big Mama Thornton, Etta James, Esther Phillips and so many others; He helped create the R&B sound in the 1950’s and kept many of its early stars touring and performing through the 60’s and 70’s.

Otis was the son of Greek immigrants, but as an obituary in the LA Times noted, ” in the 1920s, Otis decided as a youth that he’d rather be black”, and, according to one YouTube commenter he claimed “I was Greek by birth but black by persuasion”.

He wrote two books on the life, music, politics and racism he learned in Watts, Listen to the Lambs (1968) was written in reaction to the Watts riots and the conditions behind them; Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue (1993) was an account of his life and the music scene in LA. In 2010, George Lipsitz wrote a biography of Otis, Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story. An article titled “How Johnny Veliotes became Johnny Otis” (PDF) published in the Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora contains an excerpt from the then-in-progress book.

Although he produced Big Mama Thornton’s huge hit of “Hound Dog” in 1953, he himself had only one song that came close to being a hit, the now-classic “Willie and the Hand Jive”.



Read the L.A. Times obituary

Listen to a 20 minute interview he did with NPR’s Open Air in 1989.

He tells how his father’s deciding to open his food store in the heart of the black community “was the best thing that ever happened to me. He might have put it in a WASP neighbourhood. And then what would have happened to me?”

He tells a great story of how Esther Phillips made her first record at the age of 13 (as Little Esther). The song and Esther were huge hits, and after that, parents flocked to him, showing off the talents of their children, figuring he could churn out child stars.

At one point in Detroit, there were so many kids to hear, he arranged a full talent show. Among his finds that day: Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John and a group that became Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. (See “Johnny Otis in Detroit: Greatest talent show ever)”

And connecting with the singer that might be Otis’s greatest discovery… One of Hank Ballard’s big hits (before “The Twist”) was the raunchy (for those days) “Work With Me Annie”. It was the then 16 year old Etta James who sang the “answer song” from the woman’s point of view “Roll With Me Henry”. The title alone was too suggestive for many radio stations, so it was renamed “Wallflower”, and in keeping with the bland tradition of the day, a white singer, Georgia Gibbs had a bigger hit with a more de-sexed version titled “Dance With Me Henry”

A few samples of Johnny’s music

Lastly, a few comments posted on YouTube today:

  • Life without the occasional hand jive is no life at all!
  • RIP Johnny! Teach Jesus to do the Hand Jive.
  • Frank Zappa was a big fan. In fact, he grew his infamous moustache because “it looked so cool on Johnny Otis”