Johnny Otis, an R&B renaissance man and visionary whose passion for the blues, the back beat and racial equality helped ignite a West Coast music style in the late-1940s that made rock and roll possible in the 1950s and beyond, died January 17. He was 90.
Otis' contribution to American music and his ability to unite teens of all races around the radio dial, jukebox and portable phonograph in the late 1940s and early 1950s cannot be overstated. As a musician, bandleader, singer, DJ, TV show host, music producer, fine-arts painter, columnist and author, Otis single-handedly leveraged the blues of Count Basie and Lionel Hampton into small-group combos at the very moment that independent radio and vinyl 45-rpm records began to flourish throughout the country in the early 50s.
By shrewdly mashing nearly all forms of music found largely in the Los Angeles black community—including bebop, stride piano, electric blues, strip-time percussion, cool blues and jump boogie—Otis helped give rise to a form that became known as rhythm & blues. What made Otis particularly special is that he managed to be an advocate without processing the music for white audiences—or selling out the black artists who played and recorded it. [Photo: L.A. Times/UCLA Collection]
The period during which Otis absorbed and distilled these music forms found him virtually everywhere at once in Los Angeles. As a drummer, Otis can be heard on Stan Kenton's Opus a Dollar Three Eighty (1944), Illinois Jacquet's Flying Home (1945) and Lester Young's Jammin' With Lester (1946).
Otis also played piano and vibes (guitar photos were merely publicity stills), and he had little trouble finding and holding onto talent. With the rise of Hollywood as a recording center, hundreds of new labels opened offices seeking to tap into the concentration of undiscovered blues artists who had migrated from the South to the West Coast during the war in search of factory jobs.
By 1949, the surging popularity of bebop among jazz musicians and its treatment as performance art rather than dance music left a gaping opportunity for musicians willing to play and record R&B. The demand for such music only surged with the growing number of young people driving cars equipped with radios, particularly in Los Angeles.
Born John Alexander Veliotes in Vallejo in Northern California in December 1921, Otis was white and of Greek ancestry. A product of a racially mixed neighborhood, Otis was keenly aware of ethnic bias, having grown up in California's nativist climate of the 1920s. He's quoted on the topic of racism in George Lipsitz's superb 2010 biography, Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story:
"When I was around 13, I was told very diplomatically at school by a counselor that I should associate more with whites. After that, I left and never came back to school. I never felt white."
Otis first encountered the blues when he heard records played by a next-door neighbor. When Sandy Moore, his neighbor, held parties, Otis was often outside listening. Deeply inspired by drummer Jo Jones, Otis devoured drum books until he was able to play in bands. But his last name was baffling to local black audiences and black club owners. So he changed it from Johnny Veliotes to Johnny Otis.
Otis arrived in Los Angeles in 1943 as the drummer in Harlan Leonard's band. When the orchestra's engagement at the Club Alabam [pictured in 1946] on Central Avenue ended, Otis formed his own bands that included Paul Quinichette, Art Farmer, Curtis Counce, Henry Coker and other jazz and blues musicians. He also discovered Big Jay McNeely, one of R&B's first star saxophonists.
Saxophonist Hal McKusick [pictured] met Otis in 1945, after Hal and pianist-arranger George Handy flew to Los Angeles from New York to find work. They had just quit Boyd Raeburn's band in Boston over the shabby treatment of saxophonist Al Cohn. On the West Coast, Handy began arranging for Artie Shaw, and Hal found work playing casuals (parties) and in jazz gigs, including three months in Otis' orchestra at the Club Alabam:
"Johnny led a great band. Other than Johnny, I was the only white guy in the orchestra. We all lived at the same boarding house in Watts, a short distance from Club Alabam. Women would cook up great food for us before we walked to work—six nights a week.
"We did these incredible shows on Sundays. There were Hollywood sets on each side of the stage, with curving staircases coming down on each side. Female models would walk down during shows singing. It was wild. While I was there, we played behind Lena Horne, Betty Roché and other singers. [Photo: Patrons at Club Alabam, circa 1945]
"The band was heavily into Basie and really cooked. I don't know who was writing the arrangements, but the charts could really swing. Everyone in the band was way into the music. Johnny would be back there on the drums, playing like Papa Jo Jones. It was thrilling.
"Three months into the job I got a phone call at the club from Johnny Mandel. He managed to track me down there. At the time, Johnny was in Boyd Raeburn's [pictured] band, which I had left months earlier with George Handy. Johnny said the band had just reached San Francisco from the East Coast. and that Boyd needed a saxophonist to take Johnny Bothwell's place. Johnny had just left the band. So I spoke with Boyd, who agreed to pay me what I wanted. But I told him I had to call him back. [Photo of Boyd Raeburn by William P. Gottlieb]
"When I got off the phone, I went to see Johnny [Otis]. I told him I had this offer from Boyd to rejoin his band. I also told Johnny how happy I was playing in his band. Johnny said, 'Look, take my advice: go do it.' He said Boyd's band was exciting and going places. That's how hip Johnny was. He knew then that Boyd's band was on the cutting edge and doing experimental things with a lot of terrific musicians. I'll never forget what Johnny said. He said, 'If you don't like it there, you always have a chair here in my band.'
"Which is pretty amazing, considering Johnny was only about three years older than I was at the time. The maturity was amazing for someone in his twenties. Johnny was completely comfortable and knew he could find new talent in a second. Johnny was energetic, highly interested in music and tuned into the needs of the guys in the band. He commanded respect, and he got it.
"When I close my eyes and think back, I remember that Johnny had a big smile and was instantly your best friend. I would have worked in his band for nothing if he needed me. He was a terrific friend with great advice, and I had a lot of fun playing with him—and learning from him."
By the late '40s, though, Otis had shelved the Basie fetish and had begun to develop a new form of dance music. And as his brand of horn-centric, big-beat R&B caught on, he never became an exploiter of talent or a music thief. Instead of manipulating the new music's rise, he preferred his role an an insider, first as a musician and then as an a&r man with a gift for knowing which instruments to use, which riffs to deploy and which beats would add sexual tension and excitement.
Most of all, Otis viewed the music as an invisible battering ram that could topple segregation, particularly among teens. What has been largely forgotten today is that R&B and early rock and roll were forms adapted by many young radio listeners and record buyers who were baffled by segregation and sought to change institutions' unjust treatment of blacks, Latinos and other racial minorities.
"Otis did not follow the usual pattern that guided relations between stars and featured acts," writes Lipsitz in his Johnny Otis biography. "Instead of just paying wages to Little Esther and Jackie Kelso to be part of his operation, he made them partners in the business. He did not think of his own talents as a singer and musician as all that special. He viewed himself as a good listener, mentor, arranger and promoter in a community brimming with talent."
After leading the house band at the Club Alabam, he eventually opened his own club called the Barrelhouse in Watts. In the early '50s, Otis produced "Big Mama" Thornton's Hound Dog (1952) and Etta James' [pictured] Roll With Me Henry (1955). His cult-like status in Los Angeles as an R&B rainmaker made him a role model for newcomers to the record industry, including composer Jerry Leiber and producer Phil Spector. As R&B turned into rock and roll, many who were inspired by Otis began to mine black music forms and musicians for crossover potential as well as seek strategies that could make white artists seem more soulful.
In Etta James (1938-2012), who died on January 20, Otis found a young R&B firecracker who had all the command and conviction of Dinah Washington. Otis heard the bossy, insistent, sensual sound of James' voice and knew instantly that her voice combined with tart lyrics and a big beat would draw fans, and she did, quickly becoming a rock and soul pioneer.
Otis eventually started his own record label in the '50s (Dig), and in April 1958 recorded his biggest hit, Willie and the Hand Jive. His smooth, executive-hipster stage and TV persona conveyed excitement and street smarts—a cool quality that was widely admired but never duplicated with any authenticity.
Despite his love for the scene, Otis never became a clownish promoter like so many white rock-and-roll record and radio industry types in the '50s. Instead, he wore his passion on his sleeve and was always considered an honorable R&B broker, probably because he was one of the form's originators rather than an outsider scheming to capitalize on someone else's ideas. Otis continued recording, performing and appearing at music festivals into the 2000s, always a booster for rhythm, beats and the blues. Though Johnny Otis and Etta James are gone, their spirits and determination to unite all young people with music remains one of America's great cultural crusades.
Unknown to many people is that Otis also was a superb painter with a social-humorist's eye. Many of his works are featured in the book Colors and Chords: The Art of Johnny Otis (Pomegranate). [Pictured: Man's Head, handpainted drypoint, by Johnny Otis, 1988]
A special JazzWax thanks to Terry Gould, Otis' manager and a trusted member of Otis' family. He hosts Johnny Otis' site, JohnnyOtisWorld.com.
JazzWax notes: For those who may not have made the connection (me included), multi-instrumentalist Shuggie Otis is Johnny Otis' son. Back in 2001, Shuggie released Inspiration information (Luaka Bop), a highly imaginative and re-interpretive funk-soul album originally recorded in 1974.
As for books on Johnny Otis, three gems are George Lipsitz's Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story (2010, University of Minnesota Press), and Listen to the Lambs (1968, W.W. Norton) and Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue (1993, Wesleyan)—both by Johnny Otis.
JazzWax tracks: There are dozens of CDs featuring music by Johnny Otis or produced by him. A good start are these (click on the links to access them at Amazon)...
- The Complete Savoy Recordings (1946-1950)
- Rock Me Baby: The Mercury & Peacock Sides 1950-55
- Cold Shot! The Johnny Otis Show (1969)
- Johnny Otis Presents Barbara Morrison (2000)
I posted about Heart and Soul back in October.
JazzWax clips: Here's Johnny Otis with Illinois Jacquet in 1945 playing Flying Home. Dig his taunting Jo Jones style on the drums...
Here's Johnny Otis with Lester Young on It's Only a Paper Moon. Dig Otis' distinctly Los Angeles drum style, with shades of R&B already creeping through...
Here's Johnny Otis on his popular Los Angeles TV show from the 1950s...
And here's Etta James' Misty Blue from her final album released in November of last year...