Johnny Otis' R&B Caravan
keeps on rolling

A talk with one of the great champions of music

By John Orr
Sept. 22, 2000

Johnny Otis remembers.

Johnny Otis, backstage at the SF Blue Festival"The first time we went to Europe, back in the '60s, I looked out of the window as the plane was taxiing in, I told Eddie ("Cleanhead") Vinson and and The Mighty Flea (Gene Connors), 'I think there's a member of the royalty on this plane! There's a red carpet out there!'''

"But it was for us," said Otis over the phone from his Sebastapol home. "We get good treatment here in America, but never to that degree.

"One of the things I try to teach is it's important -- it's important -- that we respect the people, too. Enjoy the music, but respect the people who make the music."

The Johnny Otis Show will be both respected and enjoyed on Sunday, as the closing act of the 28th Annual San Francisco Blues Festival. Producer Tom Mazzolini has packed the big fest's last day with a ton of powerful acts, including Tower of Power, Elvin Bishop, Lavay Smith, Rod Piazza and Koko Taylor, and called on UC Berkeley professor Johnny Otis to put on the finishing touches.

"Johnny is a legend," Mazzolini explained on Wednesday. "Johnny is the last of his kind. He is the a holdover from the great era of rhythm & blues bands of the '40s and '50s. Johnny still does the great rhythm & blues caravan.

"He's being honored for those contributions." Mazzoline said. "It's our way to pay homage. Johnny is a pioneer, a great spokesperson for African-American rights.

"But it's all about the show. And Johnny has maintained one of the great shows of rhythm & blues. Having him close is our way of saying 'We respect you.'"

Born John Veliotes to Greek parents on Dec. 28, 1921, in Vallejo, California, he changed his name to Otis when he was in his teens.

Otis started in music in 1939, as a drummer with Count Otis Matthew's West Oakland House Rockers. He went on to perform with Nat "King" Cole, Count Basie, Charles Brown and many swing and R&B stars before becoming a band leader himself.

By the 1950s he had a nightclub and radio show in Los Angeles, and for a while had his own weekly TV show, on which musicans ranging from Sam Cooke to the Everly Brothers performed live.

He was writing songs and producing for himself and for many others, and discovering star after star and introducing them to the world in his Johnny Otis Revue, including Esther Phillips, Willie Mae "Big Momma" Thornton, Etta James, the Robins (who became the Coasters), Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Jackie Wilson, and Little Willie John.

Probably his biggest hit was "Willie and the Hand Jive," which he wrote to try to get a hit in England, where there was something called the skiffle craze, with teens doing the hand jive instead of dancing. But it became a huge hit in the United States, and we will all hear it again on Sunday, no doubt.

Otis has been inducted into the Blues, Rock and Rhythm & Blues halls of fame -- a rare triple crown.

When he talks about teaching, Otis is talking both about one of his current gigs -- teaching about black American music for UC Berkeley -- and of the radio programs he has run for 50 years. Currently, you can hear Professor Otis discourse on KPFA from 9 a.m. till noon on Saturdays.

The college classes take place at Ashkenaz night club in Berkeley on Monday nights, because enrollment got too big for halls on campus, and because it's easier for Otis to bring in his guest lecturers.

"I lecture on the various branchs of African-American music," explained Otis, "And I bring in other lecturers, people who are knowledgable about whatever area of music we are discussing, and cap it off with a live performance. Robert Lowry, the country blues man, was there Monday night. This coming week it will be urban blues, and we'll have Sugar Pie DeSanto. Makes it a learning thing that is academic and live performance. So that people enjoy it, they really do, and I enjoy doing it."

Otis and Mazzolini -- and others -- have noted an upswing in interest in rhythm & blues and its offshoots. The swing dance craze, for one. Mazzolini has noted increased coverage of the festival itself. Otis' barometer is his song royalties.

"'Hand Jive,' 'Every Beat of My Heart,' 'So Fine,' 'Dance With Me, Henry' -- and many others, but those four are constantly providing me with living money," Otis said.

"We were lost in limbo for a long time," Otis said, "Then suddenly there was the blues revival, but then that faded. Now this surge in popularity is bigger than anything else. I can tell by how my records sell, across the nation and across the world; and when we go to Europe there are thousands of sceaming people.

"I can tell by my royalties, they are bigger now than they ever were.''

They could have been a lot bigger, though, were it not for songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

"Lieber and Stoller brought me the song, 'Hound Dog,'" Otis recalls, of the time he produced Big Mama Thornton's recording of what was to become an R&B, and then rock 'n' roll, classic. "Parts of it weren't really acceptable. I didn't like that reference to chicken and watermelon, said 'Let's get that crap out of there.' ... This came out and was a big smash, and everything was all right. I had half the publishing rights and one third of the song-writing.

"Then Elvis Presley made it a mega hit, and they got greedy. They sued me in court. They won, they beat me out of it.

"I could have sent my kids to college, like they sent theirs," Otis said. "But, oh well, if I dwell on that I get quite unhappy, so we try to move on."

Otis' kids, of course, have attended the Johhny Otis School of Music, in effect, and son Shuggy has gone on to become a blues star in his own right, and son Lucky plays drums with the Johnny Otis Show, and grandson Lucky Otis is on bass. Otis has been married to Phyllis since 1941.

Otis is truly a Renaissance man. In addition to the music and the teaching, he has written four books, ranging from "Listen To The Lambs," about the 1965 race riots, to "Johnny Otis - Red Beans & Rice and Other Rock 'n' Roll Recipes." His painting and sculpture are showcased in "Colors and Chords - The Art of Johnny Otis," and "Upside Your Head! Rhythm & Blues on Central Avenue" rounds out the catalog.

In the '60s he was deputy chief of staff to Mervin Dymally, then a California politician, and he has always been an active spokesman against racism.

For a while he also ran a combination deli-market and nightclub, but gave that up. But, there's always his web site, where, among other things, visitors can buy musical instruments.

The man, at age 78,likes to stay busy.

One thing Otis didn't mention about the show on Sunday -- but Mazzolini did -- is that it will be filmed, by documentarian Bruce Schmiechen, for the film "Every Beat of My Heart: The Johnny Otis Story."

"He hopes it will be a theatrical release," Mazzolini said.

So, go to the show and be filmed in the audience, become part of rhythm & blues history. Like Johnny Otis.