Godfather Of R&B Johnny Otis Dies At 90

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Among music and other pursuits, Johnny Otis was active in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s (Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers)

Among music and other pursuits, Johnny Otis was active in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s (Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers)

American recording artist, record producer, disc jockey, and impresario [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Johnny Otis[/lastfm] died in his home in California Tuesday. He was 90 years old, and is survived by family members including his wife of 70 years Phyllis Walker; two daughters, Janice and Laura Johnson; and his sons Nick Otis (a drummer) and multi-instrumentalist son [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Shuggie Otis[/lastfm]. Both sons have spent time playing in Johnny’s band.

Otis lived a long life and didn’t waste a second of it. Over the course of his 90 years, most of which he spent in the music industry, there is little that Otis didn’t do. The rhythm & blues singer is best remembered, though, for his contributions to music.

Born in Vallejo, California in 1921, Johnny started his first band at the young age of 24 after performing with a variety of swing orchestras. His hit “Harlem Nocturne” was one of the most enduring songs of the big band era.

He later pared down his band into an R&B outfit, dubbed it the California Rhythm and Blues Caravan, and went on to earn a long string of  hits in the early 1950s.

Members of Otis’s band over the years are a virtual who’s who of famous musicians, many of whom left his band to follow successful solo careers and pet projects. Some of the more noteworthy acts to come out of the band are [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Etta James[/lastfm], members of [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]The Coasters[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Hank Ballard[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Little Esther[/lastfm], and Johnny’s son [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Shuggie Otis[/lastfm].

As a record producer, he uncovered even more incredibly talented musicians who would go on to have very successful and lucrative careers, including [lastfm link_type=””]Jackie Wilson[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Little Willie John[/lastfm], and Ballard, just to name a few.

In 1958, he recorded his monster hit “Willie and the Hand Jive.” In tribute to the late-great Johnny Otis, here’s the hit that you’ve all heard ([lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Eric Clapton[/lastfm] later covered it) but maybe never knew the name of.


Read more about Johnny Otis on Last.fm.

Read the New York Times obit on Johnny Otis.

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