Rock ‘n’ roll’s renaissance man. In a career in music spanning more than seven full decades Johnny Otis excelled in more areas than any single artist ever. Musician, bandleader, songwriter, singer, talent scout, producer, record label owner, dee-jay and author (not to mention artist, minister and politician), there was scarcely a role in which he didn’t fill over the years as the music may have changed around him but his love for the artform remained undiminished with time.

Born John Veliotes of Greek immigrant parents in Northern California in 1921, the family ran a grocery store in the predominantly black section of Berkley and the boy’s immersion in the surrounding culture shaped him for life. Finding black culture far more hospitable and vibrant Veliotes became Johnny Otis and took up drumming, the only light-skinned member of an otherwise all black band, a common theme in his career.

From playing in a cruder barrelhouse style with Count Matthews Band from Oakland in the early 1940’s he moved onto the territory bands of the mountain west region which made their living touring rather than recording and were a popular proving grounds for young musicians. It was while here in Kansas City that Nat “King” Cole told him he’d recommended him for job with Harlen Leonard’s renowned band which was ensconced in Los Angeles at the Club Alabam.

Once In L.A. Otis’s career took off. He took over the leadership of the house band at the Club Alabam backing a wide array of stars, including on record for the first time, including notable recordings by Illinois Jacquet, Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers (“Drifting Blues”), Lester Young, Big Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris. In addition he recorded under his own name including a big-selling non-hit “Harlem Nocturne” in 1945.

By 1948 he was in demand as a bandleader and backed Joe Swift on a national hit which put to good use his arranging skills and he promptly used the money from that session to open The Barrelhouse Club in Watts with partner Bardu Ali. The club became the first of its kind to feature rock ‘n’ roll as its primary drawing card and the amateur nights held there led to the discovery of a list of future stars, among them Big Jay McNeely, Little Esther and The Robins.

After a short stint on the local Excelsior label, Otis and his growing stable of singers and instrumentalists signed Savoy Records in 1949 where for the next two years they became the hottest band in rock, scoring a remarkable fourteen Top Ten hits, including three #1’s, most of which were written by Otis and featured him on drums or following an accident which nearly cost him three fingers, the vibraphone which became his instrument of choice from then on.

When his massive success on record led to non-stop touring commitments he closed his beloved Barrelhouse Club and began the first multi-artist package tour in rock, The Johnny Otis Rhythm & Blues Caravan, which replicated the diverse shows his club had put on allowing a full slate of performers to perform at each stop. In addition he acted as a talent scout for other labels, notably King/Federal, and is credited with discovering Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, Hank Ballard & The Midnighters, Sugar Pie DeSanto and Etta James among others.

Though Otis’s recording successes under his own name were becoming fewer by 1952, he added his own vocals to the mix (previously vocals were handled by Little Esther, The Robins, Mel Walker or Junior Ryder) and also began producing for Duke/Peacock Records. There he backed Johnny Ace and Big Mama Thornton on their hits (returning to his first love, drums on “Hound Dog”) as well as playing behind Little Richard before he broke through to stardom.

In the mid-1950’s he started his own record label, Dig, recording a wide array of up and coming L.A. vocal groups before he closed the company down to sign with major label Capitol. It was with them that his own recording career enjoyed a second wind, giving him his first Pop Top Ten with “Willie & The Hand Jive”, along with a #2 hit in Great Britain with “Ma (He’s Making Eyes At Me)” featuring Marie Adams and The Three Tons Of Joy, and a string of smaller entries over the next few years.

Meanwhile he was hosting a radio show as well as one of the first rock-themed television programs (locally in Los Angeles), for which a generation of future 60’s stars (among them Frank Zappa and Brian Wilson) grew up tuning into. Though much of the 1960’s were a down period for Otis’s own recordings, he was active in politics and wrote one of the most acclaimed books of that era in Listen To The Lambs a first-hand account/treatise of the Watts riots of 1965.

Not long after that he made a comeback of sorts as an artist with his teenaged son Shuggie on guitar on a series of off-color albums under the name Snatch & The Poontangs which resulted in his first chart hit in a decade. In the years following that Otis began organizing tours featuring older artists no longer deemed viable in the current market and in the process introduced new generations to the likes of blues acts T-Bone Walker, Charles Brown and Pee Wee Crayton, along with hybrid stars who presaged rock such as Roy Milton and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, as well as pioneering rockers like Big Joe Turner and Roy Brown.

He still found time to appear in Clint Eastwood’s movie Play Misty For Me, start his own church and lead the congregation for a decade as pastor, and draw, paint and sculpt professionally while son Shuggie turned down a chance to join The Rolling Stones as guitarist to replace Mick Taylor so that he could remain with his father’s band and record under his own name on the side.

By the 1990’s the elder statesman of rock had began selling organic apple juice from his farm, was back on the radio hosting one of the most popular specialty programs in California and writing three more books, one about his music, life and politics, another on his art as well as a cookbook, and during this time he was also inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame.

When Otis died at 90 years old in 2012 he had arguably contributed to rock’s growth in more ways than any other figure in its history.
JOHNNY OTIS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):
(Exclusive 51X; September, 1948)
As sideman… behind Joe Swift. Johnny Otis earned his first label credit on a hit record by contributing the best musical arrangement heard to date in rock, an intoxicating multi-layered voodoo pattern that elevates this to greatness. (8)

(Exclusive 51X; September, 1948)
As sideman… behind Joe Swift.

(Exclusive 64X; November, 1948)
As sideman… behind Joe Swift.

(Excelsior 536; December, 1948)
On Joe Swift’s debut in September Johnny Otis stole the show, now on Otis’s debut in the rock world as a featured artist Big Jay McNeely steals the show from him… but what a show it is, a frantic performance veering perilously close to the edge of sanity. (8)

(Excelsior 536; December, 1948)
Already Otis is spreading the wealth as bandleader, giving Lem Talley the vocal lead with help from Cathy Cooper while the rhythm section churns along strongly underneath, capped brilliantly by another searing workout by Big Jay McNeely on sax. (7)

(Exclusive 80X; January, 1949)
As sideman… behind Joe Swift.

(Exclusive 80X; January, 1949)
As sideman… behind Joe Swift.

(Excelsior 536 reissue; January, 1949)
A showcase for Pete “Guitar” Lewis whose scintillating guitar work could raise the dead and with this incendiary performance he begins to firmly establish that instrument’s more prominent role in rock going forward. (9)

(Excelsior 537; February, 1949)
Though comedienne/vocalist Cathy Cooper gives it her all and the band keeps it solidly on track this ultimately falls short due to a lack of more pointed criticisms of her no-good ex-husband, robbing the song of the humor it was designed to convey. (4)

(Excelsior 537; February, 1949)
With an arrangement that still clings to an outdated mentality when it comes to some of the horns, but then throws the thoroughly modern sax of Big Jay McNeely into the mix, this becomes a dish with the two distinct flavors which satiates nobody. (4)

(Exclusive 85X; March, 1949)
As sideman… behind Joe Swift.

(Excelsior 540; April, 1949)
Otis takes a back seat here to vocal group The Four Bluebirds, soon to be The Robins, in this blatant Ravens pastiche which nevertheless works better than anticipated thanks to the group’s much rawer sound. (6)

(Excelsior 540; April, 1949)
A comedic record that actually works thanks to Lem Talley’s treating the song like a song and not just a skit, but ironically he’s let down slightly by the musicians, specifically the horns who are something of a bad joke with their outdated style. (6)

(Excelsior 541; June, 1949)
A fairly standard borderline dirty record with plenty of euphemisms to be picked through, but while they might get a rise out of you the musical arrangement, save for a brief Big Jay McNeely solo, will leave you looking elsewhere for arousal. (4)

(Excelsior 541; June, 1949)
Another attempt to convey the unique humor found at black clubs by affixing it to a musical record which falls short, largely thanks to the music which is not even as compelling as the few laughs it garners via Cathy Cooper’s put-upon housewife. (3)

(Supreme 1532; August, 1949)
As sideman… behind Earl Jackson.

(Modern 20-715; November, 1949)
A vehicle for new 13 year old singer Little Esther the record’s best aspects belong to Esther’s mature reading and guitarist Pete Lewis while Johnny’s arranging contributions otherwise are subpar, particularly his over-reliance on trumpets in the horn section. (6)

(Modern 20-715; November, 1949)
Atmospheric instrumental that draws from multiple styles yet somehow those contrasting styles don’t seem to clash as Otis gives the bulk of the responsibility to guitar and sax to create a late night mood piece that’s hardly memorable but at least is serviceable. (5)

(Savoy 726; December, 1949)
As sideman… behind The Robins. Otis’s arrangement is perfectly conceived and executed, giving the group a sparse but edgy sound highlighted by Pete Lewis’s guitar to exquisitely frame their brand of leering menacing soul. (9)

(Savoy 726; December, 1949)
As sideman… behind The Robins. Johnny makes his debut on vibes with this record, a concession to a recent hand injury and the presence of that instrument here works really well. (6)

(Savoy 731; January, 1950)
The first building block that formed Otis’s legend, a masterfully constructed arrangement with a comedic interlude providing the payoff for a more standard sparring session between lovers that features understated playing and good harmonies behind the cool delivery of its stars. (8)

(Savoy 731; January, 1950)
Though a cover song featuring his Barrelhouse Club MC taking his first lead as a singer on record, Otis expertly streamlines the arrangement, letting his musicians take judicious solos that give this a muscular confidence that perfectly epitomizes rock’s attitude going forward. (7)

(Savoy 732; February, 1950)
Flexing his musical muscles at the peak of his powers, Otis makes sure to hit on all aspects of his retinue with this two part record featuring some raunchy singing by The Robins, great sax work by Big Jay McNeely and an irresistible groove that anchors both sides. (9)

(Regent 1016; February, 1950)
Otis’s contributions here as both songwriter and arranger are slightly below par but his band stands out on this dreamy ballad which introduces the captivating talents of vocalist Mel Walker who’d quickly become a cornerstone of the growing Otis empire. (6)

(Regent 1016; February, 1950)
Almost a template for the type of song that Otis will use to great effect with Little Esther, this early effort plugs Devonia Williams into that role and she acquits herself well but the song itself is rather slight, though Otis’s work on vibes stand out. (5)

(Regent 1017; February, 1950)
A pretty fair attempt at recreating a live atmosphere with Redd Lyte testifying as to his sexual prowess but ironically Otis pulls up short in the arrangement just when he needs to pour it on the most by featuring milder solos and a deflating coda. (6)

(Regent 1017; February, 1950)
As a composition the song falls short as its message and its mood are not on the same page, but since singer Redd Lyte and guitarist Pete Lewis ignore the intended sentiments and follow one another’s lead instead this manages to work just well enough to suffice in spite of itself. (5)

(Savoy 735; March, 1950)
Showing his earlier chart topper with Little Esther was no fluke Otis comes up with a much different, more sultry and lyrically complex tale for her first pairing with Mel Walker and earns another #1 hit with it. (8)

(Savoy 735; March, 1950)
While Little Esther rightly gets the kudos for her exquisite vocal performance that’s perfectly balanced between confessional and voyeuristic, Otis’s brilliant arrangement with his own vibes and Lorenzo Holden’s moody sax as the centerpieces match her step for step. (8)

(Savoy 738; March, 1950)
An effective re-working of The Robins usual approach helps to define the attributes of the 50’s doo-wop scene while Otis’s sparse backing lends the right emotional touch with beautifully understated contributions from Pete Lewis on guitar. (8)

(Savoy 738; March, 1950)
A more typical vocal approach by The Robins is highlighted by Otis’s sparse arrangement, their discreet instrumental touches adding to the ambiance rather than dominating the track. (7)

(Modern 20-748; April, 1950)
More of a test-run with Little Esther rather than a finished product, cut last fall when Johnny was still working out what worked best and this shows he needed to start by giving her a more modern arrangement rather than the subdued horns and dreamy guitar this features. (3)

(Modern 20-748; April, 1950)
A well-deserved showcase for Pete “Guitar” Lewis to stretch out on an instrumental, but rather the attack the song aggressively he lays back and coaxes out sounds with a light touch creating a far more interesting, if less commercial, record in the process. (7)

(Regent, 1018; May, 1950)
Though it appears sparse and simplistic at a glance, Otis’s subdued arrangement behind Mel Walker’s languid vocals is among his best, discreetly shifting the mood to match his singer’s changing views while keeping it sounding totally organic. (8)

(Regent, 1018; May, 1950)
Though Otis wisely mixed things up with the arrangement by utilizing a languid sax as the main accompaniment that’s just about all Mel Walker gets in support, leaving the singer with too much space to fill on such a slow song. (4)

(Savoy 743; May, 1950)
A moody late night instrumental in which Pete Lewis’s guitar cuts sharp as a knife before the eerie atmospheric saxophone of Big Jay McNeely comes in to finish setting the scene, all of it framed in a tight haunting arrangement. (7)

(Savoy 743; May, 1950)
Though it has absolutely no musical connection to the city of New Orleans to justify its title, this is a good attempt to showcase Pete Lewis’s guitar, which combined with some notable horn work creates an interesting sound palette. (6)