Born John Veliotes, December 28, 1921, in Vallejo, California, the son of Greek immigrants; married; wife's name, Phyllis; children: John, Jr. (Shuggie); Nicky; Daryl Jon; Janice; and Laura. Addresses: Office--7105 Baker Ln., Sebastopol, CA 95472.

Johnny Otis, son of Greek immigrants, grew up in an ethnically mixed neighborhood in Vallejo, California during the 1920s. Even before falling in love with the black musical traditions, Otis identified with the culture of his black childhood friends and came to think of himself as black. As he wrote in the preface to his 1968 book Listen to the Lambs--penned largely in reaction to the Watts riots of 1965--"I reacted to the way of life, the special vitality, the atmosphere of the black community. . . this difficult to describe quality. . . popularly known as 'soul.'"

Johnny Otis lived the life of soul at the center of black music for starting in the 1940s. In 1939, having quit high school, Otis heard Count Basie at the San Francisco World's Fair and became interested in music. After taking up the drums, Otis played boogie-woogie and blues with a local Berkeley band, gradually moving on to regional bands and playing throughout the west. By this time he had married a black woman named Phyllis Walker, a sweetheart since high school and in 1943, Otis organized a group named after himself and partner Preston Love, the Otis Love Band.

The Otis Love Band worked at a club in Nebraska for a while but Otis soon left to play drums for Harlan Leonard at Los Angeles' Club Alabam. By 1945, Otis formed his first big band (sixteen pieces) to serve as the club's house ensemble. Otis also worked as a studio drummer, making recordings with various artists including Lester Young and Charles Brown. In 1946 Otis had his first hit record with a version of Earle Hagen's "Harlem Nocturne." That same year Otis' big band toured the country with the Inkspots.

By the time Otis' band returned home in 1947, the hey-day of the big band had already passed while audiences rushed to listen to the blues. Otis, losing no time, trimmed down his crew to a smaller combo but kept the trombone, trumpet, and two saxes. "What you had was a small big band playing blues and that sound became R&B," Otis stated in an interview for the Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul. In 1948, Otis' band opened the Barrel House Club in the Watts section of Los Angeles. From the many black R&B acts at that club, Johnny Otis put together what eventually became known as "The Johnny Otis Show." This group, on the power of singers like Little Esther Phillips, Mel Walker, Devonia "Lady Dee" Williams and others, hit the R&B top forty charts an impressive 15 times between 1950 and 1952.

Otis' knowledge of R&B music, his connections and his popularity made him a natural promoter of the music he loved. Prompted by his desire to spend more time with his family, Otis quit touring in 1955. He became a Los Angeles disc jockey with an immensely popular radio show which led to a television show, and later started his own record label, Dig Records. He ran both the television and radio show out of an office building where, as George Lipsitz noted in an introduction to Otis' 1993 book Upside Your Head, Otis "continued to record hit records himself and to serve as a talent scout for other labels such as Don Robey's Peacock Records from Houston."

As the racial climate of the 1950s and the aversion to rock and roll began to merge in Los Angeles, rock and roll shows were eventually forced from the city by police pressure. The El Monte Legion Stadium, outside the city limits, became the site of a series for legendary rock and roll concerts by Otis and other performers. But in the overtly racist and frightened atmosphere of the times, this too proved intolerable to the powers that be; they revoked a stadium dance license granted to Otis' then partner Hal Zeiger, only relenting thanks to pressure from the ACLU and the NAACP.

At the same time attempts were made to crush the live performances, major labels recognized the profit potential and moved into the R&B arena. Otis succumbed to the money offered and signed with Capitol Records. There he recorded the song "Willie and the Hand Jive" in 1958, possibly the biggest hit of his career. Yet Otis professed to be generally unhappy with this move to Capitol, having abandoned his black roots in favor of making "contrived rock and roll shit" as he told Lipsitz. Other forces, namely that of the British rock invasion, spelled the end of the R&B era.

During the subsequent decade, Otis served his chosen community in non-musical ways. For ten years he acted as deputy chief of staff to a politician named Mervin Dymally. Dymally served in the California State legislature and eventually U.S. Congress. Otis also ministered, via his nondenominational Landmark Community Church, in south central Los Angeles. This church would remain active until the mid-1980s. In the late 1960s Otis, together with his guitar-playing son Johnny Jr. (called "Shuggie"), began making records again starting with Cold Shot. During the 1970s Otis also continued to produce, efforts of this time including albums of Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker.

The late 1980s and early 1990s found Otis as active as ever: selling an organic line of fruit juice, making radio broadcasts, and painting and sculpting works that reflected his love of African American culture. Further, Otis continued to tour with a 13 person band whose attraction was no doubt in part nostalgic. A revival of interest in 1950s R&B prompted Capitol Records to reissue Otis' work for that label, and Arhoolie, a record company long-interested in preserving American music, put out Otis' Spirit of the Black Territory Bands in 1993. Through this album, listeners may get a sense of Otis' music during the 1940s and visit a vanished era.

by Joseph M. Reiner

Johnny Otis's Career

Co-founder of the Otis-Love Band, 1943.formed first big band in 1945; recorded first hit record, "Harlem Nocturne," 1946; formed the Johnny Otis Show, 1948; quit touring in 1955 and became a disc jockey and began a record label, Dig Records; signed with the Capitol label in the late 50s and wrote and recorded his biggest hit, "Willie and the Hand Jive"; appointed deputy chief of staff for California congressman, Mervin Dymally; founded and ministered at his Landmark Community Church in Los Angeles; continues to record and tour.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 12 years ago

I loved Johnny Otis when he was on TV, Loved his Hand Jive and the three tons of joy. He passed away on 01/20/12. The same day that Etta James passed. He helped Etta with her career too. Johnny and Etta RIP

over 12 years ago


over 12 years ago

I have always liked Johnny I was raised on his music because I lived four houses down from him He and my mother were friends. As a young man growing up on weekends I would go down to his house and listen to him create music. I miss those days.

over 12 years ago

This is amazing! and viewing Johnny's biography brings back a "flood" of memories. When I first came to L.A. a new friend of mine named Andre Odom used to live near the Otis's and was a frined of the family.. That's when I met Johnny and his wife; Shuggie, who was just 7 years old, and Johnny's daughter's Laura and Janice. Laura-- I had a "crush" on for then I had an excuse to go over there and "hang-out." Janice later became my classmate at L.A. High School..and we became friends. I had no idea later Shuggie wrote the Johnson brother's recording of "Strawberry Letter-23." Way to go, Shug! (belatedly) I lost track of Laura and later Janice as well.. Johnny, if you read this--I want to Thank YOU for ALL you accomplished and did-- not only for the music industry, but for the L.A. community as well. I remember Merve Dymally well. You were an inspiration for me personally in my life--I had a very successful 25-year commercial and public radio career, as a D-J, public radio talk show host, News producer & anchor and News Director over the years. So--again, Thank You! and God Bless you, man! I hope you and your family are all well.. My regards to Janice and Laura. Doug Massey

over 12 years ago

I've admired Johnny Otis and his music for a long, long time--yes, I'm THAT old! God bless him. Fantastic musician! I was in awe when I was much, much younger, coming to Los Angeles as a twelve year old and meeting the family through a friend named Andre Odom. And now, coming across his biography---amazing! It brings back a flood of memories of him, Laura..his daughter, who I had a "crush" on briefly; Shuggie--who was just a kid when I used to go see Laura.. and, of course, older daughter Janice who later I became friends with when we had classes together at L.A High School. Wow! I had no idea Shuggie later wrote the Johnson Brothers' recording of "Strawberry Letter-23!" Love that tune! Way to go, Shug! I never knew what happened to pretty Laura (maybe she married my boyhood rival Tony Taylor?--Ha!), and I also lost track of the lovely Janice as well.. Does anybody on Facebook know? Please e-mail me, if you can shed a little light? Thank You, SO MUCH, Johnny for all you've done for music and for the L.A. community over the years! My regards to your family--I hope you and they are all well.. Doug Massey

over 12 years ago

Hey Johnny, my father Eugene McClintock (aka,Mac or Moji) and his friend Frank Avena (aka, Boogie) said they knew you from San Pablo park in Berkeley in the 1930's. All I can remember is them saying Johnny was a good fist fighter and a good runner. God Bless You Johnny,and hang in there Bruce McClintock

over 13 years ago

I thought I should add some of my own memories after reading those below. Back in 1955 I remember as a young guy in the 6th grade I would do my homework listening to The Johnny Otis Show. This was in Southern California, Lakewood to be exact. I still remember the intro..something like..."now it's time for the Johnny Otis show...Johnny Otis, Johnny Otis, Johnny Otis..." ..then cutting to ( if my memory is correct ) the playing of Harlem Nocturn...I loved those days and the music his show inspired in me to this day. I still have his Peacok recording of "Sittin Here Drinkin". The other DJ at the time in LA was Hunter Hancock. Both of these men brought great music to my life and memories. Also, Johnny's TV show was something I always looked forward to watching. thanks Johnny!

over 13 years ago

When I was about 9 years old I'd turn on the radio and listen to Johnny Otis every night and listen to the great sounds of R&B everynight. Thank you Johnny. My soul has been in love with great music my whole life because of you!

over 13 years ago

In the 1950's Johnny came to San Diego, bringing great music! We saw him many times as young teenagers. Then about 8 years ago, maybe more, I found him in Sebastopol!! Playing at the Johnny Otis Market! It was great, and he remembered his gigs in San Diego so many years before. Then the market was closed, but he played a couple of New Years eve shows, in Santa Rose, and we were there. Friends came up from San Diego to see him. He is a legend!! LM, Sebastopol, CA

over 13 years ago

I remember, as a pre-teen, turning on the radio to KFOX at 6 pm and listen to the Johnny Ottis show while doing the dishes. "Johnny Otis, Johnny Otis...get way back in the alley with the Blues" What great memories and the music is still my very favorite...Thank you Johnny of all the memories...We all love you!

over 14 years ago

Indeed Johnny Otis is missing fingers on his right hand. This is why his piano playing is so distinctive.

over 14 years ago

I saw him at the L.A. County fairgrounds in the late 50's- He was Great! I thought he had only two fingers on one of his hands - Or maybe I just heard that from my older siblings-Does anyone know about this- He played the piano when I saw him.

over 14 years ago

Johnny is still with us, living close to San Francisco. Although his health is getting worse (he has been bed-ridden for 5 years), his mind is still good and he reads a lot.

over 14 years ago

Where is Johnny Otis now? I miss him on KPFA...he has been gone for so long..where and how is he?

almost 15 years ago

When I was a teenager there was a live TV show from Scrivners drive-in in Inglewood. A group of us teenaged girls was asked by Johnny Otis or Art Leboe to come up with some hand movements for "Willie and The Hand Jive". We did and were on the show a couple of times doing it. These are the movements you still see today. We were "paid" with free albums and a trip to the Creshendo nightclub in Hollywood. Memories!!

almost 15 years ago

In 1958 when there used to be a live TV show from Scrivner's Drive In in Inglewood, CA a group of teenaged girls who used to go to the show all the time were asked (I think by Johnnie Otis or maybe Art Leboe to come up with some hand movements for "Willie and the Hand Jive". We did and were on the live show a couple of times. We were the ones who originally came up with the movements you still see today. I remember we were "paid" for this with free albums and a trip to the Creshendo night club in Hollywood. Memories!!

about 15 years ago

When I was a child in California in the '50's Johnny Otis was the first rock and roll performer I can remember. I loved his music and his style. He contributed a lot to the world of music Thanks, Johnny