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Johnny Otis

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Johnny Otis (born Ioannis (Yannis) Veliotes on December 28, 1921 in Vallejo, California - died on January 17, 2012 in Los Angeles, California) was an American blues and rhythm and blues pianist, vibraphonist, drummer, singer, bandleader, and impresario. Johnny Otis was one of the most prominent white figures in the history of black R&B.

After playing in a variety of swing orchestras, including Lloyd Hunter’s Serenaders, he founded his own band in 1945 and had one of the most enduring hits of the big band era, “Harlem Nocturne”. This band played with Wynonie Harris and Charles Brown. In 1947 he and Bardu Ali opened the Barrelhouse Club in the Watts district of Los Angeles. He reduced the size of his band and hired singers Mel Walker, Little Esther Phillips and the Robins (who later became the Coasters). He discovered the teenaged Phillips when she won one of the Barrelhouse Club’s talent shows. With this band, which toured extensively throughout the United States as the California Rhythm and Blues Caravan, he had a long string of rhythm and blues hits through 1952.

In the late 1940s he discovered Big Jay McNeely, who then performed on his Barrelhouse Stomp. In the 1950s he discovered Etta James, for whom he produced her first hit, Roll With Me, Henry, (also known as The Wallflower). Otis produced the original recording of Hound Dog written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller with vocal by Big Mama Thornton, and was given a writing credit on all six of the 1953 releases of the song. As an artist and repertory man for King Records he also discovered Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, and Little Willie John, among others.

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