Johnny Otis (born John Alexander Veliotes on December 29, 1921 in Vallejo, California) is an American blues and rhythm and blues pianist, vibraphonist, drummer, singer, bandleader, and impresario. Johnny Otis was one of the most prominent white figures in the history of Rhythm and Blues.
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. 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. However, he continued to perform, and in April 1958, he recorded his best-known recording "Willie and the Hand Jive", which went on to be a huge hit in the summer of 1958. His most famous composition is "Every Beat of My Heart", first recorded by The Royals in the 1952 but which became a huge hit for Gladys Knight.
In the 1960s he entered journalism and politics, losing a campaign for a seat in the California 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 1969 he recorded an album of sexually explicit material under the name Snatch and the Poontangs. In 1970 he played at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival with Little Esther Phillips and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson.
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 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.
Otis was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Frank Zappa has cited Otis as the inspiration for his distinctive trademark facial hair, stating in an interview conducted by Simpsons creator Matt Groening and Guitar Player magazine editor Don Menn, "It looked good on Johnny Otis, so I grew it."
Otis had a popular radio show on KPFA, called 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. Alas, the show's frequency deteriorated along with Johnny's health. When Otis moved to Los Angeles, the show stuttered, then stopped completely and now even the Powerhouse has closed its doors. Last real show was August 19, 2006. Last show with Johnny was some time before that.