Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,664

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,664


This is the grave of Johnny Otis.

Born in Vallejo, California in 1921, Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes grew up in a Greek immigrant household. His father owned a grocery store and he mostly grew up in Berkeley, in a Black neighborhood, where the store was. That certainly meant a different kind of background for young Ioannis than most white kids, or whatever the Greeks were considered in the 1920s. But he just more or less rejected whiteness after growing up like this. He lived almost his whole life in Black communities and stated “As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black.” That’s an interesting decision to make and as a Greek American in the 1920s, one that might have actually made sense outside of some weird reverse race-passing. He had dark skin, so well, why not. Going by Johnny to the non-Greek world, he married Phyllis Walker in 1941; she was half-Black and half-Filipino. Just a lot of interesting racial stuff going on here. However, I think it’s safe to say that such moves also reek of white privilege, especially as Greeks became more accepted as white in the postwar period and Otis was able to move between both worlds to promote himself.

Anyway, Veliotes started playing drums as a teenager and proved really good at it. Going by Johnny Otis as a stage name, he rose in the jazz world quite quickly. He started playing in swing orchestras, including with Lloyd Hunter and Harlan Leonard. In 1945, he started his own band and it was one of the biggest bands of the late swing era, one that included Illinois Jacquet. Otis also proved to have one hell of an eye for talent. He hosted a lot of talent shows, in part to find people for his own band. One person he discovered was Big Jay McNeeley, the saxophonist who had a successful R&B career. He also discovered a 13 year old girl named Etta James. Gee, I wonder what she ever did?

The late 40s was really Otis’ heyday. He had a number of top hits, including three songs that hit #1 on the R&B charts. Those were “Double Crossing Blues, “Mistrustin’ Blues,” and “Cupid’s Boogie.” A couple of things about “Double Crossing Blues.” First, and this applies to all the songs, Otis didn’t sing. He was the bandleader. In this case, it was Little Esther on vocals. Also, and this is so, so typical of the era, Otis claimed songwriter credit even though he didn’t write the song. But in this case, the actual writer, Jesse Mae Robinson, who wrote a lot of hits in this era, sued his stealing ass and won when she forced an out-of-court settlement that not only paid her but ensured that she had the copyright on the song. I wonder how many other songs Otis “wrote” by stealing from others. But he was a big deal either way and was Billboard’s R&B Artist of the Year in 1950.

This would be far from the first contractual disagreement involving Otis. See, there was this song in the 50s called “Hound Dog.” Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller wrote it, as many of you know. And you know that it will forever be associated with Elvis Presley. But Otis made the recording happen and played the drums on the initial recording, which was for Big Mama Thornton. Otis asked Lieber and Stoller, who were just kids at the time, to meet Thornton and work up some material for her. So they wrote “Hound Dog,” once they got over how scared they were of Thornton, who was a very intimidating figure. Otis claimed cowriting credit, but the person ripping everyone off here was Don Robey, who ran the record label and who had hired Otis to find something to get a hit from Thornton on. Lieber and Stoller later sued, didn’t get much (though they finally made plenty when Elvis hit with it thanks to a reworked contract with Robey) and started their own record label to protect themselves in the future. Thornton? She got $500 and not a penny more. Otis? He sued Lieber and Stoller after the Elvis hit. The judge ruled in favor of Lieber and Stoller, saying the contract they had originally signed with Otis was null and void because they were only 17 at the time.

This story really does sum up the sleaze of the music industry at that time.

Otis kept working though and managed singers and played drums on a lot of material and might have even written a few of the songs that he “wrote.” Among the continued hits under his umbrella include “Every Beat of My Heart,” which the Royals had something of a hit with in 1952 but then which Gladys Knight went to the top of the charts with in 1961. He played the vibes on and produced “Pledging My Love,” which Johnny Ace had a #1 hit with in 1954. He also continued to discover and promote other new artists, including Jackie Wilson and Little Willie John. Otis himself only had one top 10 pop hit over the years, “Willie and the Hand Jive,” in 1958, which hit #1 on the R&B charts. Through the 60s, he remained an important producer.

In 1969, Otis’ son Shuggie was a rising artist, guitarist, and really is far better known today than his father due to his excellent work in the 70s, particularly 1974’s classic album Inspiration Information. Well, Johnny Otis had an idea for his song. Let’s take advantages of the sexual culture of the period and make a dirty album! So he had Shuggie lead a band for an album called Snatch and the Poontangs. Yep. Can’t as say I’ve heard that classic.

But he remained relevant well into the 70s. His love of the blues and of the guitar certainly help. With his son and Big Joe Turner and other legends, he put on some great shows. He also started playing into the 50s nostalgia craze of the 70s and recorded a lot of his old friends doing their old songs for that market, including Turner and Gatemouth Brown and Louis Jordan. He was nominated for a Grammy in 1992 for Spirit of the Black Territory Bands, which brought back the big band sound for a new era, mostly for covers of Basie and Ellington tunes.

Otis later moved to Sebastopol in Sonoma County and started a radio show and a little club there, where he played for the locals and tourists. He played until his retirement in 2004. He moved back to Los Angeles in 2006 and died there in 2012, at the age of 90.

Johnny Otis is buried in Mountain View Cemetery, Altadena, California.

If you would like this series to visit some of the many people Otis worked with, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Little Esther is in Hollywood and Big Mama Thornton is in Inglewood, California. I guess everyone is buried in the LA area, which is why you should send me back for another batch of these great graves. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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