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Johnny Otis, godfather of R&B, dies at 90



From the AP:

Johnny Otis, the "godfather of rhythm and blues" who wrote and recorded the R&B classic Willie and the Hand Jive and for decades evangelized black music to white audiences as a bandleader and radio host, has died. He was 90.

Otis, who had been in poor health for several years, died at his home in the Los Angeles foothill suburb of Altadena on Tuesday, said his manager, Terry Gould. Otis, who was white, was born John Veliotes to Greek immigrants and grew up in a black section of Berkeley, where he said he identified far more with black culture than his own. As a teenager, he changed his name because he thought Johnny Otis sounded more black.

"As a kid, I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black," he once explained.

His musical tastes clearly reflected that adopted culture and even after he became famous, his dark skin and hair often led audiences and club promoters to assume he was black like his band mates. Otis was leading his own band in 1945 when he scored his first big hit, "Harlem Nocturne." In 1950, 10 of his songs made Billboard Magazine's R&B chart. His Willie and the Hand Jive sold more than 1.5 million copies and was covered years later by Eric Clapton. He later wrote Every Beat of My Heart, which was a hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips.

Otis also had a regular show playing records on the nonprofit Pacifica Radio Network's stations until failing health prompted him to retire in 2005. In addition to his two former bandmate sons, Otis is survived by his wife, Phyllis, whom he married in 1941; two daughters; and several grandchildren.


[Last modified: Friday, January 20, 2012 3:23pm]


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