Johnny Otis: Black by Persuasion

When segregationists urged whites to avoid listening to black music for fear of its irresistible appeal, they might have profferred Johnny Otis as Exhibit A of what they had in mind.  Early in his life, Otis, the son of Greek immigrants who ran a grocery store in a predominantly black neighborhood of Berkeley, CA, followed his black playmates into a church basement for a snack of milk and cookies and came out “captured” by the sounds and style of the music and preaching he'd heard.  He went back for more, of course, and as he described in his memoir, Upside Your Head: Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue, he was so moved by these youthful experiences that he became “black by persuasion.”

Johnny Otis died on Tuesday at the age of 90.  In a nation of self-styled originals, he was one of the truly unique.   Otis spent his life immersed in the culture and society of African-Americans, and he related his life’s story as if he were black too.  As he explained to Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 1989:  "I could not veer away [from the black community] because that's where I wanted to be," Otis said. "Those were my friends. That's what I loved. It wasn't the music that brought me to the black community. It was the way of life. I felt I was black."  He was also highly attuned to the pervasiveness of racism among whites, a matter he found insufferable and that he later decried in his books, radio shows, and political activism.

But it was music that gave expression to Otis’s heart and soul, and the music was Jump Blues, the lively hybrid of big band swing, gospel and boogie woogie that developed in the late ‘30’s and early ’40’s, and that Jerry Wexler later dubbed Rhythm & Blues. Otis, who played piano and vibes as well as drums, began his career as a drummer with Count Otis Matthews and the West Oakland House Rockers, then worked with Midwestern territory bands, including Harlan Leonard and His Rockets.  He spent one grand night spelling Jo Jones with Count Basie, and by the mid-'40's, he'd become a fixture on the Los Angeles scene, leading the house band at the Club Alabam and recording with Lester Young and Illinois Jacquet.  In 1990, he paid tribute to this era with a set of classic swing tunes entitled Spirit of the Black Territory Bands ; the cover was illustrated with one of his paintings.

Otis formed his own orchestra in 1945 and scored a surprise hit with “Harlem Nocturne” on his first session, a date featuring Basie's great singer Jimmy Rushing.   The decline in popularity and high cost of big bands forced him to break down to a smaller combo later in the decade, and his core group coalesced around pianist Devonia Williams; Pete "Guitar" Lewis, a brilliant T-Bone Walker-inspired stylist; and the saxophonists Big Jay McNeely and James Von Streeter, both prototypical "walking the bar" tenors. 

But critical to the success of Otis’s Rhythm & Blues Caravan were the vocalists he discovered in the talent contests he sponsored at The Barrelhouse, the Central Avenue nightclub he co-owned with Bardu Ali in Watts.  He described his pursuit of female singers as "a holy grail quest."  And beginning with Ernestine Anderson in 1945, these included the 15-year-old Little Esther, as well as Big Mama Thornton, Sugar Pie DiSanto, Linda Hopkins, Margie Evans, and Etta James (who died on January 20 at age 73).  Etta's first hit, “Roll With Me Henry,” was composed and produced by Otis in 1955; three years earlier, he produced and played drums on Thornton’s “Hound Dog.”  Otis hosted talent contests wherever he stopped, and one night in Detroit he discovered Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, and Little Willie John.  As he told Terri Gross, it came as no surprise to him that Berry Gordy found such a huge talent pool "right there in Detroit" when he opened Motown Records.  Otis's ear for talent and success on the charts earned him the title, “Godfather of Rhythm & Blues.”      

The classic Rhythm & Blues that Otis specialized in featured both light-hearted jump tunes and plaintive slow blues; the latter, which often echoed the gospel backgrounds of its singers, was especially popular with blacks, but as whites began to swell the market for R&B and figures like Bill Haley and Elvis Presley emerged as cover artists, demand grew for up-tempo, teen-oriented material.  Otis kept pace with his rock’n’roll hit “Willie and the Hand Jive,” but by the early ‘60’s, the combination of Motown ("The Sound of Young America") and the Beatles-led British invasion effectively drove classic R&B underground.  Ironically, the blues revival that folklorists and record collectors fostered in the mid-60’s gave short shrift to R&B, dismissing it as commercialized dance music while glorifying notions of authentic blues purity in the lineage that began in the Mississippi Delta and migrated north to Chicago.

Otis saw the emergence of guitar heavy blues-rock, which drew largely on the Delta/Chicago tradition, as another example of a watering-down process that had begun with white Swing bands in the '30's.  In Upside Your Head he wrote: "Without the rich African-American culture, the genuine, nurtured-in-the-South, pure Black blues feeling, jazz is empty…The white boys think they have it..but it was, and continues to be, all copy-cat bullshit."  Still, he praised "a few white players who have the feeling [to] interpret Black music beautifully: Scott Hamilton, Steve Cropper, Zoot Sims, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman…but you put a bandstand full of whites together, and you come up with a Doc Severinson or a Stan Kenton band, all stiff and ungainly."  Otis also noted the decline in quality of black R&B vocalists, the cause of which he attributed to TV: "In front of the television camera, youth, beauty, and skillful dancing took precedence over artistry….and more and more singers tended to be mediocre." 

Otis made very few records in the '60's, but he enjoyed at least one more moment of glory when he presented his Rhythm & Blues Extravaganza at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1970.  The concert was released on Epic Records and offered stirring testimony of the timeless vitality of the music and a dozen of its greatest exponents, among them Roy Brown, Esther Phillips, Eddie Cleanhead Vinson, and Big Joe Turner.   But by this time, Otis's interests had broadened.  He'd spent the better part of a decade in efforts to end segregation and redlining practices in Los Angeles housing.  He had also got involved in California state politics, a direction he pursued after the 1965 Watts riots, which he wrote a personalized view of in his first book Listen to the Lambs.  In the '70's he became an ordained minister and led the Landmark Community Church, a congregation dedicated to serving the needy and homeless.  Otis acknowledged knowing little "about Heaven.  [But] I know about love and brotherhood, and that's enough."  Later he became an enterprising organic farmer, marketing his own brand of apple juice which he sold in a farm store that doubled, to no one's surprise, as a nightclub. 

Here’s a 1958 performance of “Willie and the Hand Jive” from Otis’s Los Angeles television show.

And here's the entire program, complete with commercials and a couple of features for special guest Lionel Hampton.

Here’s Otis with guitarist Roy Buchanan, who says that he modeled his blues playing on Johnny’s subtle inflections as a singer.




  1. Anonymous says

    Absolutely loved this! Brought back lots of memories – all of it, even the bloody Ford commercials. The Otis-Hampton duet at the end was terrific.  Thanks so much for sharing this.  

  2. Anonymous says


    Thanks for a beautiful and sensitive tribute to this unusual and overlooked figure in American music. And thanks also for the link to his 50s TV show: a gem!


    Alan E

  3. Anonymous says

    Tom–Beautiful, deeply felt, and succinct tribute to a man that truly deserves it. I appreciate your attention to Johnny's choice of living as an African American. Aside from his musical achievements, his crucial mentoring of so much young talent, and his social activism, Johnny Otis' life also reminds us that  racial identity is not biologically determined but rather historically contingent. Here's to celebrating  his choice and his example, for moving  us closer to becoming a truly color blind society.

    Dan Czitrom

  4. Anonymous says

    As a teenager growing up in an LA suburb in the 50s, I was shaped by Johnny Otis, who was such a force in the R&B scene there.  My parents refused to have a TV in the house, so I only saw his show occasionally at friends' houses.  But the R&B  radio DJ's (Hunter Hancock, Huggy Boy, Rosko and others) played his music and those of his massive extended musical family all the time.  The 3 women doing the hand jive are certainly the "3 Tons of Joy."  What a surprise to see Hamp at the end (and what a disappointment that he was overlooked until then).  In recent years I often caught Otis's show on KPFA (Pacifica station in Berkeley) when visiting our daughter in the Bay area.  In between he became a national figure alongside Shuggie.  But I knew him best at the beginning and end of his amazing career.

    P.S.  Only after reading Tom's blogs and several other obits did I realize that Otis had a considerable career before arriving in LA and that he was a national figure even when I was listening to him (before "Willie and the Hand Jive" of course).  Also, I never heard Johnny's radio show because its station did not reach the San Fernando Valley, where I lived.

    Neal S

  5. Anonymous says

    Reney's tribute to Johnny Otis is both a first-rate summary of the man's life and contributions and a clear presentation of Otis's beliefs about African American culture and music.  I regret that Otis could only see one side of the picture and condemned what he didn't understand while praising while praising what he did and loved.

  6. Tom Reney says

    Thomas! Cheers and Congrats
    for your show on Johnny Otis.
    I used to work in a newspaper on Central L.A., where he was a figure revered.
    How ironically ordinary that nobody knows the name of a cat without whom Etta James might have for longer been unknown and undervalued….

    There was an L.A.scene but everybody had "New York Eyes" e.g.,  eric d. smilin' billy h., ornette, d. cherry, chas lloyd, martin banks, scott lafaro, les mccann, carmel jones, sonny criss,  elmo hope, leroy v. and quite a few more.  Bill Green was a smokin' tenor man (my ex-teacher)  who packed a club called "Marty's" on the Eastside. Black musicians were mostly starving while the white studio cats got the real gigs and the recording industry work, and the two groups with one or two exceptions mentioned above did not mix. Totally segregated worlds. That was what made Johnny Otis so unique and one of a kind as a Greek cat in R & B.

    What is it that he and Pepper Adams have in common?
    Having been white kids kidnapped and raised by the Indians (the Woogies)!


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