John Alexander Veliotes was born in 1921 in Vallejo, California. His father owned a grocery store in a predominantly black neighbourhood in Berkeley, California where John and his brother Nicholas grew up. He took up drums as a teenager and later learned piano and vibraphone. After attending a Count Basie concert, he was so impressed by Joe Jones ‘s drumming he decided to take the study of percussion more seriously. He made his professional drumming debut in 1939 with the West Oakland House Rockers. The young drummer made quite a name for himself and caught the attention of Nat King Cole and Jimmy Weatherspoon. Both advised him to move to Los Angeles and in 1943 he relocated and joined the Harlan Leonard's Kansas City Rockets at the Club Alabam, then Count Prince Otis Mathews, who played the casinos in Las Vegas. For the next couple of years, he was playing in a variety of swing orchestras, including Lloyd Hunter's Serenaders, before starting his own band in 1943 with Preston Love. The Otis-Love Band played at the Barrelhouse Club in Omaha, Nebraska. By 1946 Johnny Otis was in Chicago backing the Ink Spots on their worldwide tour. That year he recorded "Harlem Nocturne" which gave him his first taste of commercial success as a recording artist.
Later Johnny played the drums on Charles Brown's first major hit "Driftin' Blues.”
Aware the era for big bands was over Johnny Otis reformed his orchestra into a combo featuring twin saxophones, trumpet, trombone, with himself on the vibes. Settling in Los Angeles in 1948, he opened his own Barrelhouse Club he went into partnership with others (Bardu and Tila Ali, and Johnny Miller) and opened The Barrelhouse in the Watts District of Los Angeles. The club regularly ran talent contests and when Little Me Jones (aka Esther Phillips) picked up the first prize Johnny asked her to join his band. He toured throughout the United States as (Johnny Otis) California Rhythm and Blues Caravan. Johnny had an eye or budding talent and discovered Big Jay McNeely, Mel Walker, Etta James and the Robins (aka The Coasters), all of whom were at one time featured vocalists in his band. He had a long string of rhythm and blues hits through 1950s including: "Cupid's Boogie by Little Esther," "Mistrustin' Blues" by the Robins, and his own "Double Crossing Blues," which also featured the Robins and Little Esther.
In 1952 he wrote "Every Beat of My Heart" which was a minor hit for The Royals but later became huge when Gladys Knight recorded her version.
As a producer he was responsible for the original recording of (Willie Mae) “Big Momma” Thornton‘s "Hound Dog" in 1952.
He played on and produced Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love" (1955), as well as some of Little Richard's earliest recordings.
When Johnny became A&R man for King Records he discovered Sugar Pie DeSanto, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, The Midnighters, and Little Willie John among many others. In 1955 he formed Dig Records and recorded for Capitol Records from 1957 to 1959.
At the height of his fame as a performer, producer and writer Johnny changed careers in 1955 to become a successful disc jockey at KFOX in southern California. He did continue to perform sporadically and in 1958, had a massive hit "Willie and the Hand Jive."
By the sixties and using his own name he entered politics and ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the California Assembly. He later served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Mervin Dymally. During this time, he became an accomplished writer and published several books. Frank Zappa was a great fan and convinced Johnny Otis to return to the studio. Cold shot was released on the Kent label and featured Shuggie Otis (son) on the guitar. The album's success led to a contract with Epic Records.
In 1969 he produced an album of sexually explicit material under the name Snatch and the Poontangs (featuring vocals by Delmar "Mighty Mouth" Evans).
The next decade saw Johnny Otis back performing and for the 1970 Monterrey Blues Festival he showcased Joe Turner, Roy Brown, and Little Esther.
A tour of the Far East came in 1971, followed by a trip to England a year later. Johnny started his own label Blue Spectrum in 1974, recording Big Joe Turner, Pee Wee Crayton, Joe Liggins, Charles Brown, Gatemouth Moore, Amos Milburne, Richard Berry, Joe Liggins, Roy Milton, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, and Louis Jordan. Johnny Otis recorded a new album in 1981 which was followed by a series of tours.
He moved to Sebastopol, California, in the early 90s where he opened the Johnny Otis Market and also founded and pastored a new church, Landmark Community Gospel Church in Forestville, California. Johnny Otis died in 2012, just three days before Etta James, whom he had discovered in the early 1950s.
Worth a listen
Harlem Nocturne (1945)
Barrelhouse Stomp (1947)
Double crossing blues (featuring the Robins and Little Esther) (1949)
Cupid’s Boogie (with Little Esther) (1950)
The Turkey Hop (1950)
Willie and the hand jive (1958)
Every little bit of my heart (1952)
Double Crossing Blues (1950)
Mistrusting Blues (1950)
(Willie Mae) “Big Mamma” Thornton
Hound Dog (1952)
The Wallflower (1955)