PopBopRocktilUDrop

From the Land of Band Box Records

Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes – Doin’ That Hand Jive Too!

March 29, 2018
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Johnny Otis

Johnny Otis was born  Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes in late 1921 in Vallejo, California the son of two Greek immigrants, Alexander and Irene.

While growing up in Berkeley, California Ioannis became fascinated with the black culture via his experiences upon attending a largely black congregation church with black playmates.  As a teen he dropped out of high school after being criticized by a teacher for spending excessive time with black students.

In short order he landed a spot with “Count Otis Matthew’s West Oakland House Rockers – changing his name from the adapted “John” to Johnny Otis and comfortably moved into a life-role as a “Black by persuasion”.

His story is documented in his 1993 autobiographic memoir “Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue”.  A fact which would not be at all surprising to Otis – I was not really aware of the Central Avenue music legacy prior to reading  “Waiting for the Sun” by Barney Hoskyns, an expansive narrative of the history of the music and the musicians in California.

Shortly after reading “Waiting for the Sun” I came across the Otis memoir – his second foray into presenting his experiences in Watts – the first being “Listen to the Lambs” in 1965 sparked by what Otis experienced after the Watts riots.  At that time before writing “Lambs”, Columbia musical executive John Hammond encouraged Otis to include his musical experiences since he was indeed a musician.

On this next attempt, Otis initially set out to better document his life in rhythm & blues.  But then the Rodney King incident rose up resulting in an acquittal of King by an all-white jury – after the trial location was moved out of Watts.

And so the resulting “Upside Your Head” is a rather convoluted back and forth between a truly amazing life in music and an extremely bitter diatribe relating to the plight of black people.

Johnny Otis was an extremely talented and gifted musician: An accomplished drummer, composer, band leader, talent scout, business man, radio DJ, television personality, writer, painter – and yes, to a degree – an activist.  From my take Otis departed our world appreciative of his life’s experiences but saddened by what he witnessed what he perceived as a thoroughly unjust America.

Otis completely adopted the life role as a black man, assuming the identity exhibited  in his speech, his consistent references to “our people” his interracial marriage and his total acclamation into the Watts’ community where he made his home and established his life-long friendships – especially with the family of jazz and rhythm and blues musicians.

And from all indications, the black community embraced Otis 100 percent without misgivings or reservations of any kind – so totally sincere was Johnny Otis.  At age 20, Otis fell in love with Phyllis Walker – a young lady of Filipino and Black heritage.  The couple had difficulty locating a justice who would sanction a mixed marriage and so traveled to Reno, Nevada where they believed the mores would be relaxed.  Not so – they still were met with resistance but managed to overcome and achieved their marriage vows.

Being under age Johnny’s mother dispatched his father to Reno in order to promptly annul the marriage.  But upon his arrival Alexander instead chose to embrace Phyllis with a hug and complete acceptance into his son’s life, stating “Your mother sent me to annul the marriage, but I came to meet my new daughter.”  Johnny relates his feeling from that day back in 1941: “I never loved that old man more than I did at that moment.”

The “Central”

Photos by Dick Whittington

As related in “Waiting for the Sun” blacks had migrated to Southern California but not in large numbers by the early 1920s.  That would change with large numbers coming into the land of sunshine during the next decade.  What they found waiting for them was perhaps only a notch or two better from the situations they were fleeing.

The sunny California communities were not generally all-welcoming and so – as would occur in cities across the nation, they would carve out their own sectors and that sector for many was along Central Avenue in what would become the community of Watts – often referred to as “mud town”.

As a very young man Otis – after dropping out of high school in Berkeley and in 1940 would join up with “Count Otis Matthews and The West Oakland Houserockers” (shown above) as their drummer and then did stints with Lloyd Hunter’s Serenaders and Harlan Leonard’s Rockets before forming his own band in 1945.

Johnny Otis relates how years later into the 1940’s that even the avenue known as “Central” did not provide a guaranteed open door.  Otis recalled how in long stretches one side of the street would be black and the opposite white – and other stretches going towards downtown L.A. would be completely segregated.

As the black population settled in so did the musicians appearing in night spots and juke.  It was along the “Central” that Otis gained a foothold within the black musician’s community working with many prominent artists of the day.

The Otis Discoveries

By the late 1940’s Otis had formed “The Johnny Otis Orchestra” and landed opportunities to record on several local based record labels but most prominently with Savoy Records.  Beginning with his 1948 hit “That’s Your Last Boogie” which reached number 10 on the Rhythm & Blues charts, Otis and company had a strong run of hits including several number 1 tracks.

The Otis Orchestra attracted talented young musicians and singers two of the earliest being “Little” Esther Phillips and Mel Walker – vocalists extraordinary both.

By the later 1950’s the  “Johnny Otis Orchestra” would evolve into the  “The Johnny Otis Show”, featuring many great R&B musicians, brought into Johnny’s musical family via his eye for not only spotting great talent but for providing that talent the opportunity to thrive.

Pictured below are several of the artists who Otis either employed with his entourage or discovered.  Unbelievably Otis discovered three future recording stars Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John and Hank Ballard all in a single talent night event!

Otis Talent Trifecta! – Hank Ballard – Little Willie John and Jackie Wilson

Otis composed scores of hit R&B records and broke into the mainstream charts with “The Wallflower (or “Dance with Me Henry)”, performed first by Little Esther and then Georgia Gibbs along with many others.  The Fiestas out of New Jersey scored big with the Otis composition “So Fine”, as did The Pips (with Gladys Knight) with Johnny’s “Every Beat of My Heart”.  His own self-composed chart hit “Willie and the Hand Jive” hit it big in 1958 on both R&B and Pop charts (#3/#9) with Otis providing the vocal.

Johnny Otis continued on with his music and his activism – running unsuccessfully for a California legislative seat in the 1960’s but later becoming a deputy chief of staff for a California state assemblyman.  He founded the New Landmark Community Gospel Church in Santa Rosa where he served for about a decade as the pastor bringing gospel music to his congregation.  In the 1990’s Otis hosted a radio show broadcasting live as a host and band leader on station KPFK.  He retired in 2004 and passed away on January 17th, 2012.

Johnny Otis Charting Singles Performed by Otis & Band Members

78 – Exclusive 51X – With Joe Swift – “That’s Your Last Boogie” – Charted R&B #10 – 1948

78 – Savoy 731 – With The Robins and Little Esther – “Double Crossing Blues” – Charted R&B #1 for nine weeks – 1950

78 – Savoy 735 – With Little Esther and Mel Walker – “Mistrustin’ Blues” – Charted R&B #1 for four weeks – 1950

78 – Savoy 735 – With Little Esther – “Misery” – Charted R&B #9 – 1950

78 – Regent 1016 – with Mel Walker and the Bluenotes – “Cry Baby” – Charted R&B #6 – 1950

78 – Savoy 750 – With Little Esther and Mel Walker – “Cupid’s Boogie” – Charted R&B #1 for one week – 1950

78 – Savoy 759 – With Little Esther & Mel Walker – “Deceivin’ Blues” – Charted R&B #4 – 1950

78 – Regent 1018 with Mel Walker – “Dreamin’ Blues” – Charted R&B #8 – 1950

78 – Savoy 764 – With Little Esther, Mel Walker and Lee Graves – “Wedding Boogie” – Charted R&B #6 – 1950

78 – Savoy 764 – With Little Esther & Mel Walker – “Far Away Blues (Xmas Blues)” – Charted R&B #6 – 1950

78 – Savoy 766 – With Mel Walker – “Rockin’ Blues” – Charted R&B #2 – 1951

78 – Savoy 777 – “Mambo Boogie” – Charted R&B #4 – 1951

78 – Savoy 777 – “Gee Baby” – Charted R&B #2 – 1951

78 – Savoy 788 – “All Nite Long” – Charted R&B #8 – 1951

78 – Savoy 821 – With Mel Walker – “Sunset To Dawn” – Charted R&B #10 – 1952

78 – Mercury 8285 – With Mel Walker – “Call Operator 210” – Charted R&B #4 – 1952

78 – Duke 136 – With Johnny Ace – “Pledging My Love” – Charted R&B #1 for Ten Weeks – Pop #17 – 1955

45 – Capitol F3966 – “Willie and the Hand Jive” – Charted R&B #3/Pop #9 – 1958

45 – Capitol F4168 – with Marci Lee – “Telephone Baby” – Charted Pop #116 – 1959

45 – Kent 506 – With Delmar Evans – “Country Girl” – Charted R&B #29 – 1969

Johnny Otis Charting Singles Performed by Others

78 – Modern 947 – Etta James and the Peaches – “The Wallflower” – Charted R&B #1 for 4 Weeks – 1955

45 – Mercury 70572 – Georgia Gibbs – “Dance With Me Henry (The Wallflower)” – Charted Pop #1 for 3 Weeks – 1955

45 – Old Town 1063 – The Fiestas – “So Fine” – Charted R&B #3/Pop #11 – 1959

45 – Vee Jay 386 – The Pips – “Every Beat Of My Heart” – Charted Pop #6 – 1961

45 – Vee Jay 386 – The Pips – “Every Beat Of My Heart” – Charted R&B #1 for one Week/Pop #6 – 1961

45 – Fury 1050 – Gladys Knight and the Pips – “Every Beat of My Heart” – Charted RB #15/Pop #45 – 1961

45 – Deluxe 45-6190 – The Midnighters – “Every Beat of My Heart” – Charted Pop #113 – 1961

45 – King 45-5710 – James Brown and the Famous Flames – “Every Beat of My Heart” – Charted Pop #83 – 1963

45 – Bang B-524 – The Strangeloves – “Hand Jive” – Charted Pop #100 – 1966

45 – Innis 6667 – Ike and Tina and the Ikettes – “So Fine” – Charted R&B #50/Pop #107 – 1968

435 – Imperial 66423 – Johnny Carver – “Willie and the Hand Jive” – Charted Country #43 – 1970

45 – United Artists UA-XW226 – Johnny Rivers – “Searchin’/So Fine” – Charted Pop #113 – 1973

45 – RSO SO-503 – Eric Clapton – “Willie and the Hand Jive” – Charted Pop #26 – 1974

45 – Door Knob DK-6-021 – Peggy Sue – “Every Beat Of My Heart” – Charted Country #34 – 1977

12-Inch 33 1/3 – AVI 12-310 – Rinder and Lewis – “Willie and the Hand Jive” – Charted Dance #20 – 1979

45 – Malaco M-2062 – Dorothy Moore – “Talk to Me/Every Beat of My Heart (medley)” – Charted R&B #87 – 1980

45 – MCA 52065 – The Oak Ridge Boys – “So Fine” – Charted Country #22/Pop #72 – 1982

45 – De-Lite DEP 1575 – Crown Heights Affair – “Every Beat of My Heart” – Charted R&B #20/Pop #76 – 1983

45 – EMI America B-8270 – George Thorogood and the Destroyers – “Willie and the Hand Jive” – Charted Pop #63 – 1985

45 – Warner Bros. 7-28625 – Rod Stewart – “Every Beat of My Heart” – Charted Pop #83 – 1986

Johnny Otis’ Dig Record Label – Selected Discography

(Recordings with Johnny Otis Involvement)

45 – Dig 107 – Mel Williams – “Talk To Me” – Co-composed by Johnny Otis – 1956

45 – Dig 109 – Tony Allen – “I’m Dreamin/I Found An Angel” – Co-composed by Johnny Otis – 1956

45 – Dig 110 – Preston Love Orchestra – “Dog Faced Boy Parts 1 and 2” – Composed by Johnny Otis – 1956

45 – Dig 114 – Mel Williams – “Here In My Heart” – Composed by Johnny Otis – 1956

45 – Dig 117 – Little Arthur Mathews – “Bad Bad Building” – Co-composed by Johnny Otis – 1956

45 – Dig 118 – Little Julian Herrera – “Lonely Lonely Nights” – Co-composed by Johnny Otis – 1956

45 – Dig 119 – The Johnny Otis Orchestra – “Let The Sunshine In My Life” b/w Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! – 1956

45 – Dig 120 – Bill Mann – “A Million Heartaches Ago” b/w “Just Like Before” – A Side Johnny Otis – Co-composed B Side – 1956

45 – Dig 122 – The Johnny Otis Orchestra – “The Midnite Creeper Parts 1 and 2” – 1956

45 – Dig 123 – Mel Williams – “My Love” – Co-composed by Johnny Otis – 1956

45 – Dig 124 – Arthur Lee Maye – “This Is The Night For Love” b/w “Honey Money” – Co-composed by Johnny Otis – 1956

45 – Dig 125 – Abe Moore and Orchestra – “S and J” b/w “Moore Boogie” – Co-composed by Johnny Otis – 1956

45 – Dig 126 – Sailor Boy – “What Have I Done Wrong” – Co-composed by Johnny Otis – 1956

45 – Dig 127 – Billy Robbins – “Baby Please Come Home” – Co-composed by Johnny Otis – 1956

45 – Dig 128 – Mel Williams – “All Through The Night” – Composed by Johnny Otis – 1956

45 – Dig 130 – Lawrence Stone – “Everytime” – Co-composed by Johnny Otis – 1957

45 – Dig 131 – The Johnny Otis Orchestra – “Tough Enough” b/w “The Blooper” – 1957

45 – Dig 133 – Arthur Lee Maye – “Whispering Wind” Composed by Johnny Otis – “A Fools Prayer” – Co-composed by Johnny Otis – 1957

45 – Dig 134 – The Johnny Otis Orchestra – “Wa Wa Parts 1 and 2” – 1957

45 – Dig 135 – The Gladiators – “Girl of My Heart” b/w “My Baby Doll” – 1957

45 – Dig 136 – Mel Williams – “It’s You” – Composed by Johnny Otis b/w “I Got Eyes” – Co-composed by Johnny Otis – 1957

45 – Dig 137 – Little Julian Herrera with the Johnny Otis Orchestra – “Symbol of Heaven” b/w “Here In My Arms” – 1957

45 – Dig 148 – The Chimes – “Jonelle” b/w “I Found An Angel” – 1957

45 – Dig 132 – The Johnny Otis Orchestra – “My Eyes Are Full Of Tears” b/w “Turtle Dove” – 1957

45 – Dig 139 – The Johnny Otis Orchestra – “The Night Is Young (And You’re So Fine)” b/w “Stop, Look and Love Me” – 1957

45 – Dig ZY-95006 – Jewell Lombardo – “Christmas Melody” – Co-composed by Johnny Otis

2 Comments

  1. Another fine article.

  2. Naturally, when you post great articles like this, I start digging for more (no pun on Otis’ record label, by the way). One of my favorites by him is Castin’ My Spell, which I first heard in a modern version by C. C. Adcock and traced it back to the original. We;;, the original got even better – I just found a real stereo version from 1959 which was available on 45 only way back when. Listening in earphone it sounds as fresh as today – and there are some great guitar sounds in it as well! I don’t know how many stereo 45s Capitol put out back then, but I’m sure glad they did this one:

    Mindblowing! It makes me want to run right out and see this band doing this song this way. (I wish!)

    PS – just for comparison, here’s Adcock’s version, which goes in some different directions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkI3WjVAVug

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