Johnny Otis was a singer, musician, composer, arranger, bandleader, talent scout, disc jockey, record producer, television show host, artist, author, journalist, minister, and impresario. He was a seminal influence on American R&B and rock and roll.
While James Brown was seen as the Godfather of soul music, for many music critics Johnny Otis was considered the Godfather of rhythm and blues. But what his many fans across the U.S.A. did not know was that he was actually a Greek-American.
In his long career, Johnny Otis wore many hats, and he was a pioneer in many ways. He was a bandleader, talent scout, singer, drummer, church minister, journalist, television show host, and radio producer.
Between 1950 and 1952, Johnny and his band recorded fifteen top 40 R&B hits. He discovered, produced and promoted legends such as Etta James, Little Esther, Big Mama Thornton, and Jackie Wilson.
There is even an unsubstantiated story that he was responsible for coining the new term “rock and roll” as rhythm and blues was transforming into rock and roll during the decade of the 1950s.
He was even briefly dubbed “The King of Rock and Roll” early on in this process — before Elvis snatched the crown and took it to his grave.
Johnny Otis was born Ioannis Alexandros Veliotes on December 28, 1921, in Vallejo, California. His Greek-immigrant parents were Alexander Veliotes, a grocery store owner, and painter Irene Kiskakes. He grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood and early in life he decided that was where he belonged.
“As a kid, I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black,” he stated.
At the age of 19, and despite the disapproval of his mother, he married his childhood sweetheart, 18-year-old Phyllis Walker, who was African-American and Filipino. The couple was forced to elope and marry in Reno, Nevada.
Johnny Otis began his music career as a drummer and became a bandleader in the late 1940s. He released a string of successful records as The Johnny Otis Orchestra (1948-1957) and he headlined “The Johnny Otis Show” from 1958-1969.
In the late 1960s, early Rock and Roll and R&B were becoming passe, and Otis made less and less music every year, both in the studio and on stage. In the early 1970’s he started a Blues record label called Blues Spectrum.
In the 1980’s he reinvented himself once more, becoming a radio show host in California. Through the 1990s and 2000s, he continued touring and releasing albums sporadically. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2017.
Activist for African-American rights
Growing up in an African-American neighborhood, he spent his early years immersed in black culture and music. Identifying more with African-American culture than his own Greek background led him to adopt a new name, believing that it sounded more black.
It was only natural that Otis became a dedicated civil rights activist, and at some point, he even became friends with Malcolm X. He made appearances at sit-ins targeting segregated lunch counters and wrote opinion pieces for the Los Angeles Sentinel about the problems of the L.A. black community, including a condemnation of California’s segregated housing laws.
Johnny Otis never lied about his Greek roots, yet he was so widely seen as a black American that one night in 1960, white racists burned a cross on his lawn. Even that did not deter him in continuing his support for the cause of equal rights. In 1979, Otis told the Los Angeles Times, “Yes, I chose, because, despite all the hardships, there’s a wonderful richness in black culture that I prefer.”
His activism appeared in his music as well. The 1965 Watts Riots inspired him to write “Listen to the Lambs,” a song about racial oppression and the plight of black America.
In 1975, Otis was ordained as a minister, and three years later, he founded the New Landmark Community Gospel Church in Santa Rosa, California. He presided over services there until the church closed in 1998.
He and his beloved wife Phyllis were married for 71 years, until Otis died of natural causes in Altadena, California on January 17, 2012.
“As a kid, I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white,
I would be black.”
Was Johnny Otis Greek?
Yes, Johnny Otis was the son of Greek immigrant parents, Alexandros Veliotes, and Irene Kiskakes.
Johnny Otis’ son Shuggie talks about his dad’s Greek roots:
“He (my dad) told me about the music, I also own a bouzouki. He told me a little bit about Greek food; this soup that it’s called “avgolemono” is one of my favorite foods. My father taught me a lot about Greek culture but I wish I could speak Greek. I’d be nice to know another language. With the things that we’re working right now, we want the audience to reach such a high level of excitement. It’s almost like a dream because it seems like we’re achieving it. My grandmother would feel my Greek heritage more than my father and that is where I took my Greek culture from. My father was proud being Greek but not proud of being white and it took him a lot of time to accept the fact that he was white. He just preferred being with black guys more. As for my grandfather, my father’s father, he was such a nice man. Even though he died at the age of 65, when I was probably three or four, he was such a quiet man but I remember him very well. When my grandfather died, I didn’t know what it meant to be sad but when I understood that he wasn’t coming back, that time I started being more spiritual. Even though I wasn’t given any religious nor any spiritual upbringing.” – An interview with Shuggie Otis