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Johnny Otis Biography

Inductee: Johnny Otis (bandleader; born December 28, 1921)

Bandleader Johnny Otis has been called “the Godfather of Rhythm and Blues.” Over the years he has exhibited an uncanny ear for talent, and by bringing that talent to the fore has served to advance the growth and development of rhythm & blues. His R&B stage revues and the numerous recordings made under his name have included such singing discoveries as Little Esther, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, Etta James and the Robins (who evolved into the Coasters). Beginning in the mid-Forties, Johnny Otis cut classic numbers including “Double Crossing Blues,” (a #1 R&B single for nine weeks!), “Mistrusting Blues,” “Barrelhouse Boogie” and “Rockin’ Blues” with his R&B orchestra. Otis recorded under his own name but also backed up acts on the Excelsior and Exclusive labels.

In addition to his skills as a producer, talent scout and songwriter (which led to his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a nonperformer), Otis was an accomplished percussionist who joined jazz bands in the Forties and played drums on such early R&B recordings as the Three Blazers’ landmark “Drifting Blues,” featuring vocalist Charles Brown. In the Fifties, Otis scouted talent for Syd Nathan’s King and Federal labels, discovering the Midnighters - then known as the Royals, later as Hank Ballard and the Midnighters - whose “Work With Me Annie” became a rock and roll cornerstone in 1954. He also crossed paths with Johnny Ace (Otis produced and played on “Pledging My Love”), Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John and Big Joe Turner, to name a few. Otis’ various achievements make him a key figure in the rise of rhythm & blues and rock & roll in the Fifties.

The multi-talented Otis was born into a family of immigrant shop owners in Vallejo, California. Despite his Greek heritage, he blended easily into the black community. Otis was the ultimate hipster, embodying the freewheeling spirit of rhythm & blues in his many musical guises: bandleader, producer, promoter, musician, talent scout, label owner and more. The Johnny Otis Orchestra placed ten singles into the R&B Top Ten in 1950 alone. Yet he charted just one Top 40 crossover hit in his career: 1958’s “Willie and the Hand Jive,” a salty R&B novelty later covered by Eric Clapton and others. In the Sixties, Otis served as an West Coast A&R man for Syd Nathan’s King Records.

As popular interest in the roots of rock and R&B waned for part of the Sixties, double-teamed by the British Invasion and psychedelia, Otis helped keep the music alive with his all-star live revues. In 1970, the Johnny Otis Show performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival, resulting in a double album that rekindled interest in the many R&B greats who appeared on it. Otis’ son, guitarist Shuggie Otis, emerged from the revue as a child prodigy at age 15 and went on to a recording career in his own right.

Johnny Otis, meanwhile, has kept his touring revue alive and remained tirelessly active over the decades as a bandleader, radio deejay record producer, college professor, author, painter, sculptor and more. Few others can claim to have been both active and influential in the music business for more than 60 years and done so with the modest hepcat humor that Otis has exhibited. Johnny Otis passed away on January 17, 2012. He was 90.