Born 100 Years Ago Today: Johnny Otis

Born 100 years ago today, the one and only Johnny Otis (Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes, 1921-2012). We’ll get to his ethnic identity and other interesting trivia betimes, but first, his accomplishments.

Otis is widely considered one of the architects of what we call rhythm and blues. He started out as a drummer in big bands in the late ’30s. He later took up vibes and piano. He formed his own jazz band in 1945, which recorded one of the earliest versions of “Harlem Nocturne”. Singers he discovered and presented with his band (or produced and promoted) include Little Esther, the Robins (better known as their later name The Coasters), Big Mama Thornton (for whom he produced and played on the first version of “Hound Dog” in 1953 later popularized by Elvis), Johnny Ace (producing his 1954 hit “Pledging My Love”), and Etta James, whose 1955 hit “Dance With Me, Henry” he also produced. His 1952 song “Every Beat of My Heart” was a hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1961. He also wrote “Willie and the Hand Jive” in 1958, helping to popular the Latin sound we now think of as the Bo Diddley beat. Other artists he produced include Jackie Wilson and Little Willie John. Otis also hosted his own local radio and tv shows in Los Angeles in the 1950s. He recorded and performed live well into the 1980s.

In addition to this, he operated his own nightclub The Barrelhouse, produced music festivals, was deputy chief of staff to a state assemblyman, ran for local office himself and preached in church. (This preaching/politics/music combo was not unlike the journey of the Rev. Al Sharpton, who had started out with James Brown’s entourage). More surprising: his younger brother Nicholas Veliotes (b. 1928) was a U.S. diplomat, serving as the American Ambassador to Jordan (1978-81) and Egypt (1984-86), among a long list of similar positions. Those were some tough assignments in tough years!

Which brings us to our bombshell — the Veliotes brothers were ethnic Greeks, from Berkeley, California. Growing up in a mostly black neighborhood, Otis had black friends, played black music, and married a half black woman. Long before the more controversial Rachel Dolezal, and with arguably much more justification, Johnny Otis “identified as black”. Why more justification? Well, as a Greek, a Southern Mediterranean, he was on the receiving end of racial prejudice. Where I come from, Southern New England in the 1970s, ignorant bigots in the area still referred to local Italians as “Guineas”, an epithet implying African heritage. I’m sure it was not much different for Greeks in the US in the 1930s and ’40s. Otis said if he were forced to choose being “white” or “black” and people were going to treat him “black” anyway, why identify as “white”? And to clarify, he was identifying culturally — which is pretty common among musicians. He never claimed to be ethnically African (in contrast to Dolezal, who misrepresented herself as literally African American). You may choose to call it “appropriation”, but it’s not for me to opine. It’s a tangle, and it’s not for me to untangle it.

Otis lived to the ripe old age of 90. We’re also coming up on the anniversary of his passing, January 17, 2012.

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