Blue Notes

RIP Johnny Otis, the Godfather of Rhythm and Blues

Johnny Otis, one of the creators of rock and roll but primarily remembered as the godfather of rhythm and blues, has passed away at 90. Otis died at his home in the Los Angeles suburb of Altadena.

A consummate band leader and showman who was of Greek descent and changed his actual last name, Veliotes, to Otis because it sounded "more black," Otis was instrumental in spreading black music to white audiences via his performances, records, and radio show. Not only was he one of the top performers of his era, he had a huge influence on the shape of RnB and rock and roll as a producer.

Beginning in 1945, just as World War II was ending, Otis went on to have a huge string of hits, actually placing ten songs in the Billboard Top 100 in 1950. He is probably most famous for his huge 1958 hit, "Willie and the Hand Jive," which was covered by numerous artists including Eric Clapton and was featured in the John Travolta film Grease.

While Otis was a wildly popular live act, perhaps his largest contribution to American music was through his work as producer. The list of people Otis worked with and whose careers he helped shape and define is staggering and includes blues diva Etta James, whom he recorded in 1951 when they were label mates at Mercury Records. Otis also produced Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog," the first recording of the monumental Leiber-Stoller composition that would later be one of Elvis Presley's seminal hits.

Otis also discovered Little Esther Phillips, who was a singer for his house band at the Barrelhouse Club in the Watts district of Los Angeles, as well as The Coasters, who began their career as backup singers in Otis's band.

Moving to storied King Records as an A&R man, Otis is credited with discovering Hank Ballard and Midnighters, the originators of The Twist, soul shouter Jackie Wilson, and Little Willie John.

Otis has an interesting Houston connection: he produced the first Little Joe Washington album in Los Angeles with none other than former Houstonian and funk progenitor Johnny "Guitar" Watson on drums.

Rocker Chuck Prophet, remembering his days in the prominent alt-country band Green on Red, noted on his Facebook page, "When we recorded Gas, Food, Lodging at El Dorado Studios on Sunset and Vine, there was a gold 7" of "Hand Jive." Seeing that on the wall made me feel lucky."

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William Michael Smith