Father of Shuggie Otis
Name checked on the cover of "Freak Out!" (1966) under the heading "These People Have Contributed Materially In Many Ways To Make Our Music What It Is. Please Do Not Hold It Against Them".
Johnny Otis can simply be desribed as a musician, bandleader, arranger, songwriter, producer, booking agent, tour promoter, road manager, record label operator, publisher, disk jockey, and television personality. In his spare time, away from the music world he was a author, columnist, politician, actor, printer, painter, sculptor, and even bred rare birds.
His family had Greek origins and he grew up in a predominantly "black" area of Berkeley, California (where his father ran a grocery store); he would later style himself as a "white Negro".
His first musical job was as a drummer with Count Otis Matthew's West Oakland House Rockers in 1939. Nat "King" Cole and Jimmy Witherspoon, recommended him as a drummer for Harlan Leonard's Kansas City Rockets at the Club Alabam in Watts, Los Angeles a busy wartime entertainment centre. In 1943 he formed the Otis-Love band with Preston Love. By 1944 he was being requested to do session work and was first recorded on Illinois Jacquet's version of "Flying Home" on Aladdin Records in 1945. He went on to do sessions for the likes of Wynonie Harris and Lester Young.
During 1945 he formed his own band, and singed to Excelsior Records. After a few releases he had a hit with "Harlem Nocturne": the tunes sultry lewd pulsating rhythms made it a favourite with strippers for many years. This hit gave the band enough bookings to keep them touring for over a year but the popularity of the big bands was on the wane and they were breaking up into smaller groups. Otis followed this trend and toured with a smaller band backing the Inkspots during 1947. In 1948 an injury to his hand forces him to give up drumming and limit himself to vibes and piano. He joined with Bardu and Tila Ali, and Johnny Miller to open The Barrelhouse in Watts, Los Angeles , which was the first nightclub to feature Rhythm & Blues exclusively. The weekly talent night at the barrelhouse revealed a wealth of untapped talent.
In January 1949 he has hits on the Savoy label with recordings by The Robins, and the 14 year old Little Esther. They all tour as "The Savoy Barrelhouse Caravan with Johnny Otis & His Combo". Savoy continues to put out records and by April the caravan arrives at New York's Apollo for a week of shows. The caravan continues its tour, proving very popular in Atlanta, and eventually arrives at The Royal Theater in Baltimore.
They enjoy a succession of hits throughout 1950 on the Savoy label and Little Esther and Johnny Otis are given the Best Jazz and Blues Artists Award of 1950 by Cashbox magazine. By 1951 Little Esther had left Otis and signed as a solo artist with the King label; although their paths would often cross and she would continue recording until her death in 1984 as Esther Philips. Linda Hopkins takes over the female vocal role with the band although Savoy continue to release recordings it holds featuring Little Esther. By 1952 Otis signed with Mercury records and records with Ben Webster. In April he starts a tour with Willie Mae Thornton. While Mercury continues to release records by the Otis band he does some arranging and production work for Don Robey's Peacock label. This results in Willie Mae Thornton's "Hound Dog", a song written by two young songwriters called Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The songs popularity is instantaneous and Peacock has three pressing plants running full time just to keep up with demand. Otis continues producing for Robey's labels and eventually signs a contract with Robey himself.
Towards the end of 1953 Otis tours as the Johnny Otis Revue with Willie Mae Thornton, Marie Adams and Junior Parker, and once again storms New York's Apollo.
By early 1954 Otis is back in Los Angeles where he discovers a young vocalist called Jamesetta Hawkins. Otis quickly records her as Etta James and produces "The Wallflower (Roll with me Henry)", with Otis on percussion and backing vocals by Richard Berry and The Peaches, it quickly became one of the first Rock and Roll anthems - probably helped a little by regular plays on Otis' daily radio show. The KFOX radio show would be another platform for Otis to present his artists including the young vocal groups The Penguins and The Medallions.
In early 1955 Otis inaugurated a series of shows at the Legion Stadium in El Monte and by the end of the year Otis was signed up to host a TV show on KTTV. In early 1956 the Mesner Brothers, owners of Aladdin Records, along with Otis, set up a new label called Ultra. The names was soon changed to Dig and Otis assumed the role of managing A & R. After several releases, including his own records, for Dig Otis is signed to Capitol records (his first major label signing) in 1957. Being a small fish in the large Capitol poll Otis gets little marketing support and his records for them do not sell as well as was hoped: Capitol even consider dropping the whole Johnny Otis band/TV show package. In the spring of 1958 Otis takes his whole entourage on tour in the UK where it is pointed out to him that teenagers frequenting coffee bars had taken to "hand jiving" to the records on the juke boxes. On his return to the US Otis records "Willie and the Hand Jive", a song building on rhythms popular from the 1930's and developed by Bo Diddley in the 1950's, which Capitol release with barely a mention to the media. By the summer the record has taken off featuring in the charts for four months. After decades in the business Otis finds himself an overnight success. Despite the song crossing over from the R&B world into pop charts Otis remained true to his roots and put together and all black show which is increasingly performing to white audiences. Otis is unable to provide Capitol with a follow up hit. The TV show continues to promote new talent including Don & Dewey - It was Otis who gave Don Harris the nickname "Sugarcane".
Frank Zappa first met Otis around 1958 on a trip to his studio having long admired his records and enjoyed his selections for his radio show.
As the 1950's rolled into the 1960's the musical tastes of the public once again shifted; this time towards heart-throb teen idols, vocal groups (particularly girl groups) and Surf and Hot Rod bands. Otis set up a Eldo records but with little success and he drifted away from the music scene. After the Watts Riots he became active politically within the Los Angeles community. Otis wrote a book "Listen To The Lambs" which portrayed the communities he grew up in with all their talents and yet they were disenfranchised from the pursuit of the "American dream". He stood for election to the California Assembly (but as he campaigned as Johnny Veliotes, rather than Otis, he probably failed to pick up as many votes as could have been expected and he did not win a place. ). Vote for Johnny Otis: Don't forget to remember to register to vote (184KB mp3).
Having cultivated Otis' "imperial" style moustache and beard Frank Zappa contacted Otis in the summer of 1969 while recording material that would appear on Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Hot Rats. Otis took his son Shuggie to the session and he played bass on Son Of Mr. Green Genes, his father being credited as Contractor in his capacity as impromptu band leader. FZ asked Otis about Don Harris. They found he was in prison and so bailed him out so he could record with them.
Johnny Otis continues to paint, sculpt and write as well as presenting a weekly radio show.