Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Black by Persuassion: The Johnny Otis Story

Johnny Otis
, sometimes called the"Godfather of Rhythm and Blues," was actually a white man who chose to live in the African American community.

Born to Greek immigrants, 
Otis grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood of Berkeley, California, where his father owned a grocery store.

Otis became well known for choosing to live his professional and personal life as an African-American, writing that "As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black."

Or, as he sometimes put it, he was "black by persuasion."

From his official web site comes this summary of his early years beginning at age 18 :

He began his musical career in 1939 as a drummer with Count Otis Matthew's West Oakland House Rockers. In 1943, at the recommendation of Nat "King" Cole and Jimmy Witherspoon, he moved to Los Angeles to join Harlan Leonard's Kansas City Rockets at the Club Alabam. By 1945 he was leading his own band, and had his first big hit that year with "Harlem Nocturne". In 1948 he joined with Bardu and Tila Ali, and Johnny Miller to open The Barrelhouse in Los Angeles, which was the first nightclub to feature Rhythm & Blues exclusively. In 1950 he had ten songs that made the Top 10 on Billboard Magazine's Best Selling Retail Rhythm & Blues Records list. With this success, he went on the road with his California Rhythm & Blues Caravan, and became the hottest musical attraction in black America. In the early 1950's, remaining active as a writer, performer, and producer, Johnny began a radio career and became one of the most popular disc jockeys in southern California. His career in radio spanned almost 50 years. His early radio broadcast success led to a weekly variety show on television. "The Johnny Otis Show" was on TV in Los Angeles for eight years.

Otis married a black woman (Phyllis Walker) in 1941 in Reno, Nevada, back when interracial marriage was still illegal in California, and in 29 other states.

Otis discovered a 13-year old Etta James
, and also 'Big Mama' Thornton, whose songs were later copied and popularized by Janis Joplin.

It was Johnny Otis that commissioned and produced "Hound Dog," first recorded by Big Momma Thornton, and later popularized by Elvis Presley.

Otis was hugely popular, and wrote many terrific tunes such as "Willie and the Hand Jive," "Every Beat of My Heart," "Blues Nocturne," "Harlem Nocturne," "Nigger Please," "Pissed Off Cowboy," and "Country Girl".

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