Johnny Otis Biography

Ioannis Veliotes, 28 December 1921, Vallejo, California, USA. Born into a family of Greek immigrants, Otis was raised in a largely black neighbourhood where he thoroughly absorbed the prevailing culture and lifestyle. He began playing drums in his mid-teens and worked for a time with some of the locally based jazz bands, including, in 1941, Lloyd Hunter’s orchestra. In 1943, he gained his first name-band experience when he joined Harlan Leonard for a short spell. Some sources suggest that, during the difficult days when the draft was pulling musicians out of bands all across the USA, Otis then replaced another ex-Leonard drummer, Jesse Price, in the Stan Kenton band. In the mid-40s Otis also recorded with several jazz groups, including Illinois Jacquet’s all-star band and a septet led by Lester Young, which also featured Howard McGhee and Willie Smith.

In 1945, Otis formed his own big band in Los Angeles. In an early edition assembled for a recording session, he leaned strongly towards a blues-based jazz repertoire and hired such musicians as Eli Robinson, Paul Quinichette, Teddy Buckner, Bill Doggett, Curtis Counce and singer Jimmy Rushing. This particular date produced a major success in ‘Harlem Nocturne’. He also led a small band, including McGhee and Teddy Edwards, on a record date backing Wynonie Harris.

Otis was aware of audience interest in R&B and began to angle his repertoire accordingly. Alert to the possibilities of the music and with a keen ear for new talent, he quickly became one of the leading figures in the R&B boom of the late 40s and early 50s. Otis also enjoyed credit for writing several songs, although, in some cases, this was an area fraught with confusion and litigation. Among his songs was ‘Every Beat Of My Heart’, which was a minor hit for Jackie Wilson in 1951 and a massive hit a decade later for Gladys Knight. Otis was instrumental in the discovery of Etta James and Big Mama Thornton. A highly complex case of song co-authorship came to light with ‘Hound Dog’, which was recorded by Thornton. Otis, who had set up the date, was listed first as composer, then as co-composer with its originators, Leiber And Stoller. After the song was turned into a multi-million dollar hit by Elvis Presley, other names appeared on the credits and the lawyers stepped in. Otis had a hit record in the UK with an updated version of ‘Ma, He’s Making Eyes At Me’ in 1957.

During the 50s Otis broadcast daily in the USA as a radio disc jockey, and had a weekly television show with his band and also formed several recording companies, all of which helped to make him a widely recognized force in west coast R&B. During the 60s and 70s, Otis continued to appear on radio and television, touring with his well-packaged R&B-based show, and entering politics as chief of staff for Democratic Congressman Mervyn M. Dymally. His son, Shuggie Otis, appeared with the show and at the age of 13 had a hit with ‘Country Girl’. He also recorded an album’s worth of adult material under the moniker Snatch And The Poontangs. In addition to his busy musical career, Otis also found time to write, including Listen To The Lambs, written in the aftermath of the Watts riots of the late 60s. He also ran a health food store in California. Otis was elected to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1994.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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