Saturday, January 21, 2012

Johnny Otis R.I.P.

Legendary rhythm and blues bandleader Johnny Otis passed on 17 January 2012 at the age of 90.

Johnny Otis was born John Alexander Veliotes on 28 December 1921 in Vallejo, California. The son of Greek immigrants, he grew up  in a predominantly black section of Berkeley, California. He started drumming professionally in 1939. In 1945 he formed his own sixteen piece band. It was also that year that he had his first hit with "Harlem Nocturne."

From the late Forties into the Fifties he would have several hits, including "Double Crossing Blues," "Mistrustin' Blues," "Rockin' Blues," "Gee Baby," "Call Operator 210," and "Willie and the Hand Jive." "Willie and the Hand Jive" was arguably his biggest hit. It was also his last. In addition to his various hit songs, Mr. Otis also discovered the recently deceased Etta James and Big Jay McNeely.  He also produced the original version of "Hound Dog," performed by Big Mama Thornton. He composed several songs as well, including "Every Beat of My Heart," performed by The Royals.

In the Sixties Mr. Otis turned his attention to politics and the civil rights movement. In 1968 he published his first book, Listen to the Lambs (1968). He would publish three more books, including Upside Your Head!: Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue (1993), Colours and Chords (1995), and Red Beans & Rice and Other Rock ’n’ Roll Recipes (1997).  He continued to perform music into the Naughts.

There can be no doubt that Johnny Otis was a pioneer. With his orchestra in the late Forties he blended jazz, gospel music, and the blues in a way that could rightfully be considered a forerunner of rock 'n' roll. Indeed, by the early Fifties it can be argued that he was performing rock 'n' roll before the genre had even been given its name. Although his last hit would be in 1958, he then had a lasting impact on the history of popular music.

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