January 24, 2012 by Amy Gold
Known as the godfather of R&B, singer, songwriter, and band leader Johnny Otis passed away on January 17, 2012 at the age of 90. Otis died in his Altadena, CA home after several years of poor health. As a white person born to Greek immigrants, he was raised in Berkeley, CA and was greatly influenced by the culture of the predominantly black neighborhood in which he grew up. During his teen years, he changed his name from Ioannis Alexandres (John) Veliotes to Johnny Otis to sound more black.
Otis' music was reflective of the culture he adopted. Throughout the 1950s, he had a string of hits on the Billboard R&B chart that included his famous "Willie and the Hand Jive" (1958) and the chart topping "Double Crossing Blues" (1950), "Mistrustin' Blues" (1950), and "Cupid's Boogie" (1950). He also wrote "Every Beat of My Heart" for Glady Knight and the Pips and produced the original version of "Hound Dog" as performed by Big Mama Thornton.
Otis was born on December 28, 1921 in Vallejo, CA, and he started his career in the 1940s playing drums in swing orchestras. Over the years, he had a very multifaceted career in the entertainment industry that encompassed many roles, including bandleader, musical arranger, singer, songwriter, talent scout, producer, booking agent, tour promoter, road manager, record label operator, music publisher, deejay, and TV personality. In addition to enjoying a long and successful career, he was also instrumental in the careers of many other musicians, such as Etta James, Little Esther Phillips, and The Robins (who later became The Coasters). He received numerous honors that include being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. Until his retirement in 2005, he remained active in the music industry, playing records for a nonprofit radio station. Otis spent his later years sculpting and painting, and he was also a lifelong curator of black music. Otis leaves behind his wife of 70 years, his children and his grandchildren.