Johnny Otis, a musical jack-of-all-trades who was often referred to as “the godfather of rhythm and blues,” has died. He was 90.
According to Rueters, Otis passed away on Tuesday in the Los Angeles suburb of Altadena.
“His role in pop and rock’n'roll music made him a legend, he could do it all. He is one of the greatest talents of American music and he was a great American,” Otis’ friend and music historian Tom Reed is quoted as saying.
Born white, the son of Greek immigrant parents, and raised in a predominantly black neighborhood in Northern California in the 1920s, Otis decided as a youth that he’d rather be black.
“Yes, I chose,” Otis reflected in 1979, “because despite all the hardships, there’s a wonderful richness in black culture that I prefer.”
Otis founded his own band in the mid-1940s and scored his first hit with the song “Harlem Nocturne”. He went on to have R&B hits with “Mistrustin’ Blues” and “Double Crossing Blues” in the 1950s and “Willie and the Hand Jive,” in 1958.
The singer also composed Etta James‘ first hit, “The Wallflower” which gained chart success in 1955, the 1961 hit “Every Beat of My Heart” for Gladys Knight and the Pips, and produced “Hound Dog,” made famous by Elvis Presley in 1956.
Otis became a disc jockey for Los Angeles radio station KFOX, and was also heavily involved in politics and the civil rights movement. He wrote about both in his 1968 debut book, “Listen to the Lambs,” in which the 1965 Watts riots played a central theme.
He also became an ordained minister, opening the Landmark Community Church in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. He later moved back to northern California to become an organic farmer.
But the pioneering musician never moved away from his first love, music, and toured well into his 70s, headlining blues and jazz festivals, usually with his musician sons, Nicky and Shuggie.
Otis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a songwriter and producer in 1994, the R&B Foundation Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2000.
In memory of Johnny Otis, watch as he plays Willie and the Hand Jive in the clip below: