Bay Area Native / Rhythm & Blues Legend Johnny Otis Dead At Age 90

Posted by Billyjam, January 19, 2012 10:27pm | Post a Comment
Johnny Otis aka "The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues" died on Tuesday at his SoCal home in Altadena. Otis, who had been in poor health for the past several years, was 90 years of age and no exact cause of death has been announced so far.

Otis was not just an accomplished musician and bandleader/talent scout with a keen ear for true talent but he was also a talented radio DJ with a distinctive on-air voice. I met him at KPFA years ago when he used to host an entertaining and educational Saturday morning music show on that and other Pacifica stations up until seven years ago.

Otis, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, earned the title of "The Godfather of Rhythm & Blues" due to his band from the late 1940s into the 50's forging a sound that melded jazz of the big band era with the pre-rockNroll spirit of raw church gospel mixed with blues - IE rhythm and blues or early rock'n'roll. As bandleader or A&R talent Otis' taste was impeccable. Artists he discovered and helped launch careers of included Jackie Wilson, Etta James, and Big Mama Thornton.

Otis was a Bay Area cat through and through. He was born in Vallejo to Greek parents (many listeners were shocked to discover he was not Black) and grew up in South Berkeley. He would later move to SoCal. As well as bandleader and sometime singer Otis played drums, piano, and vibraphone. In the early 1950's he scored fifteen hit singles on Billboard's rhythm-and-blues chart including the number one hit single "Double Crossing Blues."

Otis' 1958 hit single "Willie and the Hand Jive" was rediscovered by a later generation care of Eric Clapton's version of it on the 1974 album 461 Ocean Boulevard. Otis also wrote the song "Every Beat of My Heart" that was an early 1960's hit single for Gladys Knight and the Pips. As well as musician the ever active and creative Otis wore many other hats. These included being an artist (painter), an author (including a bio, cookbook, & art book), a preacher, a political activist, and in more recent years an organic apple farmer in Sebastopol. Of course was his first love. Johnny Otis' musical legacy is carried on by his musically minded family (many who performed with him over the years) including his accomplished son John Jr., better known as revered guitarist Shuggie Otis.

        Johnny Otis "Willie & The Hand Jive" (1958)

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