Rhythm & Blues pioneer and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Johnny Otis–born John Veliotes–died Tuesday night in the Los Angeles area after a decade-long struggle with an undisclosed illness. He was 91.
Otis was born Dec. 28, 1921, in Vallejo, Calif. He dropped out of school to play with bands throughout the Midwest and settled in Los Angeles in 1943. He performed with Charlie Parker and Count Basie, but his main impact was in R&B.
As leader of his own band, Otis had 15 Top 40 R&B hits from 1950 to 1952. His biggest success was with “Willie and the Hand Jive” in 1958. Otis was also as extremely skilled bandleader, drummer, vibraphonist, singer, producer, and promoter of R&B and Rock & Roll. Otis was instrumental in furthering the careers of a number of important performers, including Big Mama Thornton, Hank Ballard and Jackie Wilson.
He is credited with flipping the name Jamesetta (Hawkins) to Etta James and packaging her as a single after discovering her in San Francisco.
While growing up as part of a Greek immigrant family in Berkeley, Otis began a lifelong attraction and commitment to African American culture. He celebrated the vibrancy of African American music and its power to unite people across racial boundaries, coming to think of himself as “Black by persuasion.” He performed with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Count Basie and Art Tatum.
An artist, pastor, civil rights activist and author Otis wrote “Listen to the Lambs” (1968), an insightful account of the 1965 Watts riots, and “Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue” (1993). He also wrote the introduction for friend and well-known disc jockey Tom Reed’s book “The Black Music History of Los Angeles–It’s Roots.”
“Even though Otis wasn’t African American, he had an appreciation and love for them and that was evident in his music,” said Reed. “He was a man of many [talents] and that’s not only when it came to Black music. He was an author, a painter and a sculptor. He did what he had to do. I will miss him and he was a good friend. A real friend. He was, White, but he fought for the causes.
Otis is survived by his wife Phyllis and children John, Jr. (Shuggie), Nicky, Daryl Jon, Janice, and Laura.
Funeral arrangements were pending.