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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Johnny Otis Dead at 90

Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes (December 28, 1921 – January 17, 2012), better known as Johnny Otis, was an American singer, musician, talent scout, disc jockey, composer, arranger, recording artist, record producer, vibraphonist, drummer, percussionist, bandleader, and impresario. Born in Vallejo, California,he is commonly referred to as the "Godfather of Rhythm and Blues"Johnny Otis, a white guy whose love for black music led him to leave a giant footprint on rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll, died Tuesday in the Los Angeles area. He had turned 90 in late December.

Otis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 for a multi-decade career that included writing, producing, recording and finding stars like Little Willie John, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Little Esther.

He had only one major hit under his own name, the 1958 classic "Willie and the Hand Jive."

But he wrote Etta James' first hit record, "The Wallflower," and Gladys Knight's first hit, "Every Beat of My Heart."

He produced dozens of seminal R&B hits in the 1950s, and his traveling R&B ensembles provided a home for stars from Big Mama Thornton to Joe Turner.

He was known as a man who loved the music and also had a sense of humor about it. He sometimes called his recording group the "JO's."

While many white musicians became enchanted with black rhythm and blues in the years after World War II, few threw themselves into that world as completely as Otis.

"I chose" the black world, Otis told the Los Angeles Times in 1979, "because despite all the hardships, there's a wonderful richness in black culture that I prefer."

Born in Vallejo, Calif., Otis didn't become hooked on music until late in high school, when he said he saw the Count Basie band and decided he wanted to become a drummer like Basie's Jo Jones.

He played with several big bands through World War II, then followed the postwar trend and moved into smaller groups that would become known as R&B combos. He had his first hit in 1946 with "Harlem Nocturne."

He recorded and produced extensively through the 1950s, then saw his success crumble with the 1960s British Invasion — when, ironically, white kids from Britain started playing the kind of music on which Otis had grown up.

He spent time in politics and as a minister before returning to music in the late 1970s. He also worked as a farmer, marketing Johnny Otis Apple Juice, and a grocery store owner.

He fronted bands on and off for the rest of life, including some with his son, guitarist Shuggie Otis.
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