Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes (December 28, 1921 – January 17, 2012), better known as Johnny Otis, was a Greek-American singer, musician, talent scout, disc jockey, composer, arranger, recording artist, record producer, vibraphonist, drummer, percussionist, bandleader, and impresario. Born in Vallejo, California, he is commonly referred to as the "Godfather of Rhythm and Blues".
Otis was the child of Greek immigrants Alexander J. Veliotes, a Mare Island longshoreman and grocery store owner, and his wife, the former Irene Kiskakes, a painter.
Otis was well-known for his choice to live his professional and personal life as a member of the African-American community. He has written, "As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black."
He was the father of musician Shuggie Otis.
After playing in a variety of swing orchestras, including Lloyd Hunter's Serenaders, he founded his own band in 1945 and had one of the most enduring hits of the big band era, "Harlem Nocturne". This band played with Wynonie Harris and Charles Brown. In 1947, he and Bardu Ali opened the Barrelhouse Club in the Watts district of Los Angeles, California. He reduced the size of his band and hired singers Mel Walker, Little Esther Phillips and the Robins (who later became the Coasters). He discovered the teenaged Phillips when she won one of the Barrelhouse Club's talent shows. With this band, which toured extensively throughout the United States as the California Rhythm and Blues Caravan, he had a long string of rhythm and blues hits through 1950.
In the late 1940s, he discovered Big Jay McNeely, who then performed on his "Barrelhouse Stomp". In the 1950s he discovered Etta James, for whom he produced her first hit, "Roll With Me, Henry" (also known as "The Wallflower"). Otis produced the original recording of "Hound Dog" written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller with vocal by Big Mama Thornton, and was given a writing credit on all six of the 1953 releases of the song. As an artist and repertory man for King Records he also discovered Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, and Little Willie John, among others. He also became an influential disk jockey in Los Angeles.
He continued to perform and, in April 1958, he recorded his best-known recording "Willie and the Hand Jive", which relates to hand and arm motions in time with the music, called the hand jive. This recording went on to be a hit in the summer of 1958, peaking at #9 on the U.S. Pop chart, and becoming Otis' only Top 10 single. The song was covered by Eric Clapton in 1974, and became a staple of his live repertoire. Otis' most famous composition is "Every Beat of My Heart", first recorded by The Royals in the 1952.
Otis continued performing through the 1990s and headlined the San Francisco Blues Festival in 1990 and 2000, although because of his many other interests he went through long periods where he did not perform. He was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 as a nonperformer for his work as a songwriter and producer.
Frank Zappa has cited Otis as the inspiration for his distinctive trademark facial hair, stating in an interview conducted by The Simpsons creator Matt Groening and Guitar Player magazine editor Don Menn, "It looked good on Johnny Otis, so I grew it."
In the 1960s, he entered journalism and politics, losing a campaign for a seat in the California State Assembly (one reason for the loss may be that he ran under his much less well known real name). He then became chief of staff for Democratic Congressman Mervyn M. Dymally. He was also was the pastor of Landmark Community Church.
In the 1990s, Otis bought a farm near Sebastopol, California, north of San Francisco. For a time he ran a coffee shop / grocery store / blues club, where one of the featured singers was the Georgia-born singer Jackie Payne. Around this time Otis also founded and pastored a new church, Landmark Community Gospel Church, which held weekly rehearsals in the tiny town of Forestville, California, and Sunday services in Santa Rosa, California. Landmark's worship services centered on Otis' preaching and the traditional-style performances of a gospel choir and a male gospel quartet, backed by a rocking band that featured Otis' son Nicky Otis and Shuggie's son, Lucky Otis. The church closed its doors in the mid-1990s.
Otis hosted a radio show on KPFA, The Johnny Otis Show. This show was aired every Saturday morning, live from the Powerhouse Brewery in Sebastopol. Listeners were invited to stop in for breakfast and enjoy the show live. Due to declining health, as well as his relocation to Los Angeles, his participation in the show decreased. The show last aired on August 19, 2006.