Johnny Otis—a player in '50s R&B and early rock 'n' roll as a singer, songwriter, producer, talent scout, and disc jockey—died Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 90.
Otis' best-known, most tangible achievement is his 1958 hit "Willie And The Hand Jive," a sexy song with a Bo Diddley beat that was later covered (though not very well) by Eric Clapton. He also had an early hand in the careers of future R&B stars Jackie Wilson, Little Richard, Hank Ballard, and Etta James, whose sexually suggestive breakthrough hit "The Wallflower" (also known as "Roll With Me Henry") was written by Otis. Later, his son Shuggie Otis became a cult favorite in his own right, after getting his start playing oldies shows with his dad in the '60s and '70s.
Born to Greek immigrants on Dec. 28, 1921, Otis was raised in a predominantly black neighborhood outside of San Francisco and took to the culture of his neighbors early on. Otis claimed he "chose" to be black, telling the Los Angeles Times that "despite all the hardships, there's a wonderful richness in black culture that I prefer." He played drums with the jazz and big-band groups of the day, and eventually traveled to Los Angeles to be part of the city's jazz/blues/R&B scene.
While working as a bandleader, Otis also produced other artists and hosted radio and television shows in the L.A. area. After the British Invasion curtailed his career, he became an ambassador for R&B via radio shows and his "Johnny Otis Show" tours featuring many of the artists he worked with in the '50s, including Ballard and Little Esther Phillips. In 1994, Otis was inducted in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and continued to tour in recent years. [via the Los Angeles Times]