Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes was born to Greek immigrant parents in Vallejo, California, and grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Berkeley. It was Nat “King” Cole and Jimmy Witherspoon who suggested that he relocate to Los Angeles where he joined up with Harlan Leonard’s Kansas City Rockers, the house band at the Club Alabam on Central Avenue; from there, his career as a bandleader began in earnest. He hit with a version of “Harlem Nocturne” and took his California Rhythm & Blues Caravan on the road, bringing his revue to Black America. Known to some as “The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues,” what Otis gave to rock’n’soul as a DJ, producer, writer and advocate of African American culture is incalculable: He produced Big Mama Thornton and the original version of “Hound Dog”; he was an early discoverer of Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Little Willie John, whom he noticed at a Detroit talent show. He gave early breaks to Little Esther Phillips and Etta James (he produced “Roll With Me, Henry”, her answer song to Ballard’s “Work With Me, Annie”) and produced some early takes by Little Richard. He played on and produced “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace and wrote “So Fine” and “Willie and the Hand Jive.” He nurtured artists from Jackie Payne and Sugar Pie DeSanto as well his son Shuggie Otis, and his grandson Lucky Otis. He remained devoted to R&B throughout his lifetime, promoting it on his public radio broadcast, The Johnny Otis Show, on which he also spoke out about the issues he was passionate about—chiefly poverty and racism. “The fact that so many human beings in American are without adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or hope for the future constitutes a national disgrace,” he wrote in 1993. “I fear that as more of our country’s wealth is concentrated into fewer hands and American corporate fascism becomes more entrenched, the shame in the streets will grow.”
Otis lived his life if not passing then certainly living more comfortably among blacks, participating in the struggle for equality in the early ‘60s, and becoming adept at his own political and spiritual speechifying. His first book, Listen to the Lambs concerned the Watts riots of 1965. Influenced early on by Minister Malcolm X, Otis ultimately entered politics working as Deputy Chief of Staff to Mervyn M. Dymally, a lifelong California politician. Otis also started his own churches, the Landmark Church in Los Angeles, turned Landmark Community Gospel Church in Santa Rosa: All were welcome. “The most meaningful activity at our church was feeding homeless people,” Otis wrote.
Otis was also a visual artist with paintings, carvings and sculptures to his credit; believe it or not, he also marketed a line of apple juice, made from apples grown at his Sebastopol farm. Splitting his life between his native Nor Cal and his adopted Southern California homes, he died in Los Angeles, leaving his wife of 60 years, Phyllis, and an entire extended Otis clan. My condolences to all of them, and to all those who loved him: “Rock Steady”, Mr. Otis, and thank you.
Johnny Otis is among the artists whose stories contribute to the rich history of where music meets social and political activism. Read more about Otis and others like him in Keep on Pushing. He told his own story in Upside the Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue, available through his website.