Updated 26 July, 2019.
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 talented multi-instrumentalist son. Shuggie, I believe, stood for ‘sugar’, his mother’s nickname for Johnny 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 on the early rock & roll scene, and a leading light when it came to the USA’s West Coast transition from blues to R&B.
Johnny’s talents were immense, ranging from bandleader, guitarist, pianist, drummer, vibraphone player, vocalist, songwriter, producer, talent scout and disc jockey . . . to author, journalist, painter, pastor who founded his own church, preacher, sculptor, organic farmer and chef.
A music promoter and all-round entrepreneur, Johnny Otis hosted his own TV and radio shows and even ran for the California State Assembly. He wasn’t elected, probably because he ran under his hardly-known real name: Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes. With a name like that, he was, of course, the son of Greek immigrants who had settled in the San Francisco Bay area.
A political activist and civil rights leader who chose to live and work in the black community, Johnny was also chief of staff to the black Californian Democrat, Melvyn M. Dymally.
Amongst the talent Johnny Otis discovered were Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, a 13-year-old Etta James, Big Mama Thornton; and the Robins, a group who later became the Coasters.
While Otis also wrote and/or produced songs for Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, Gladys Knight and the Pips and Canned Heat amongst others, he will mostly be remembered for his sole US pop hit, ‘Willie and the Hand Jive’, which reached number nine on the U.S. pop charts in 1958. Eric Clapton covered it, you’ll remember.
Indeed, I remember girls doing Johnny’s hand-jive dance (with their hands) in English coffee bars in the early 1960s. (I was, of course, a mere lad at the time.) They used to sit at laminated tables doing fist dances to Johnny Otis’s Bo Diddely beat.
Johnny Otis with Willie and the Hand Jive: check out this 1958 clip.
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 the wrong side of 65, he was but a teenager when I first came across his talent as a multi-instrumentalist. This was because I was promoting his various Epic albums in the UK. Such was Shuggie’s talent as a guitarist, B. B. 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.
Back in the late 1960s, Shuggie Otis was thought to have had a similar
musical potential to his contemporary, Stevie Wonder.
Indeed, Shuggie was playing late night shows in his father’s band, aged just 12, his tender age 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 ‘n’ roll in America.
|Johnny Otis in later life. Age catches up with all of us in the end.
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 band as the Johnny Otis Roadshow but its actual name is hard to pin down these days and 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.