A young Johnny Otis. He’d give Errol Flynn a run for his money
Writing the previous Leiber-Stoller post reacquainted
me with that great rhythm & blues pioneer, Johnny Otis, and Shuggie, his multi-instrumentalist
son. Shuggie, I believe, stood for ‘sugar’, his mother’s nickname for the young
Johnny Otis Jnr.
Johnnie Otis Snr. was a jack-of-all-trades
entertainer variously described as the Godfather of Rhythm & Blues and the
Original King of Rock & Roll. I’m not sure if I’d quite agree with that, perhaps
nominating someone a little earlier like Big Joe Turner. Nevertheless, Johnny
Otis was an extraordinary mover and shaker upon the early rock & roll scene
and a leading light in the West Coast’s transition from blues to R&B.
Johnny’s talents ranged from bandleader,
guitarist, pianist, drummer, vibraphone player, vocalist, songwriter, producer,
talent scout, radio DJ and host of his own TV show … to author, journalist, painter,
sculptor, chef, political activist who ran unsuccessfully for the California
State Assembly (not getting elected probably because he ran under his  hardly-known real name), chief of staff to a
leading black Democrat, pastor, civil rights leader, organic farmer, music
promoter and all-round entrepreneur.
Amongst the talent Johnny Otis discovered was a
13-year-old Etta James, a 14-year-old Little Esther

Johnny discovered Etta James when she 
was just 13. She’s obviously older above

Phillips, Little Richard,
Jackie ‘Mr Excitement’ Wilson, Big Mama Thornton and the Robins, who later
became the Coasters.

Artists Otis wrote and/or produced songs for
included Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, Gladys Knight and the Pips and Canned
Heat. What Johnny Otis will be most be remembered for, however, is his sole US
pop hit, “Willie and the Hand Jive”, which reached number nine on the American
pop chart in 1958. Indeed, I remember girls doing Johnny’s hand-jive in UK
coffee bars in the early 1960s. (I was a mere lad at the time.) They used to
sit at laminated tables doing hand dances to Johnny Otis’s Bo Diddely beat.
Perplexed? Well, have a look for yourself on the link below. The girls in the
clip doing the hand jive, alongside Johnny Otis, are the aptly-named Three Tons
of Joy.
Otis with Willie and the Hand Jive:
Old timers in the UK will also recall Johnny’s
number two hit there in 1957, “Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me”.
As for Johnny’s son, Shuggie Otis, now nudging
61, he was but a teenager when I first came across his talent as a
multi-instrumentalist; but this was only because I was promoting his various
Epic albums in the UK. Such was Shuggie’s talent as a guitarist, BB King
proclaimed, in 1971, that the 16-year-old was his favourite new guitarist.
Indeed, such was Shuggie’s prodigious ability, his first Epic album, “Here
Comes Shuggie Otis”, was released when he was aged just 15.
Shuggie: carrying on the Otis name
In other words, Shuggie Otis had a similar
musical potential to his contemporary Stevie Wonder back in the late 60s. Indeed,
Shuggie was playing late night shows in his father’s band, aged just 12, his
tender years disguised by shades and a false moustache. But while Stevie Wonder
went on to become a megastar, Shuggie seemed to disappear for years on end and
remained a bit of a cult figure. However, when he did produce an album, it was
usually pretty good.
I bring up Johnny and Shuggie Otis if only to
highlight the amazing variety of nationalities contributing to the development
of blues, R&B and rock & roll in America. In the Otis’

Johnny Otis in later life. Age catches up with all of us in the end

case, the exotic
ingredient was Greece, Johnny being born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes in 1921,
the son of Greek immigrants who had settled in the San Francisco Bay area. Johnny’s
younger brother, Nicholas A. Veliotis (Shuggie’s uncle), incidentally, was the
United States’ Ambassador to Jordan, then Egypt, in the 1980s.  

Shuggie’s real name is Johnny Alexandres Veliotes
Jnr. and his brother, Nicholas played alongside him as drummer in their father’s
band. Two of Johnny Otis Snr.’s grandsons, Lucky and Eric Otis also played in
his band. I remember this as the Johnny Otis Roadshow but its name would have
changed or varied over the years.
Johnny Otis died in Los Angeles in 2012 aged 90.
He had been married for 70 years.

Etta James, who called Johnny her “guru”, died
three days later.