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  • Born

    28 December 1921

  • Born In

    Vallejo, Solano County, California, United States

  • Died

    17 January 2012 (aged 90)

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. He also became an influential disk jockey in Los Angeles. However, he continued to perform, and in April 1957 he had a hit with his best-known recording Willie and the Hand Jive. His most famous composition is "Every Beat of My Heart", first recorded by an obscure group in the '50s but which became a huge hit for Gladys Knight.

In the 1960s he entered journalism and politics, losing a campaign for a seat in the California Assembly (one reason for the loss may be that he ran under his much less well known real name). He then became chief of staff for Democratic Congressman Mervyn M. Dymally.

He continued performing through the 1990s and headlined the San Francisco Blues Festival in 2000, although because of his many other interests he went through long periods where he did not perform.

In the 1990's he lived near Sebastopol, California and ran a coffee shop / grocery store / blues club in that hip rural city north of San Francisco.

He was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

Otis had a popular radio show on KPFA, called The Johnny Otis Show. This show was aired every Saturday Morning, live from the Powerhouse Brewery in Sebastopol. Listeners were invited to stop in for breakfast and enjoy the show live. Alas, the show's frequency deteriorated along with Johnny's health. When Otis moved to Los Angeles, the show stuttered, then stopped completely and now even the Powerhouse has closed its doors. The last real show was August 19, 2006 and the last with Otis was some time before that.

Otis died on January 17, 2012 at the age of ninety.

Otis, of Greek descent, was the older brother of Nicholas Veliotes, former U.S. Ambassador to Jordan (1978-1981) and to Egypt (1984-1986). He was the father of Shuggie Otis.

Frank Zappa had cited Otis as the inspiration for his distinctive trademark facial hair, stating in an interview conducted by Simpsons creator Matt Groening and Guitar Player magazine editor Don Menn that "it looked good on Johnny Otis, so I grew it."

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