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RIP Johnny Otis

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Johnny Otis, the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues,” has died at the age of 90. It’s a sad day for the music world, and for me personally, as I always felt a strong attachment to the man’s music.johnny-otis

“Harlem Nocturne,” his 1945 big band hit, was (next to “Sing, Sing, Sing”) my favorite song in the repertoire of the swing band I played in during the 1980s in Boston. I heard a sax player keening those sad notes on the streets of New York just the other day.

“Willie and the Hand Jive,” Otis’ 1958 rhythm and blues hit, was a favorite in the bar bands I played with later. At one point we even named our band after the song.

It wasn’t until some time later that I made the connection and realized that those two songs, so different in almost every way and so important in different genres, were by the same guy.

And I wasn’t aware at the time of Johnny Otis’ even greater significance in music history as a proselytizer of black music to white audiences, entertaining live and TV audiences with his mixed-race band and in the process discovering or nurturing such enduring stars as Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, Hank Ballard, and the group that became The Coasters.

One last fact: Johnny Otis was white. He grew up in a black part of Berkeley, CA and explicitly identified himself as culturally black throughout his life, explaining that “As a kid, I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black.” But he was born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes, the son of Greek immigrants. Otis’ life pounds home a message many wouldn’t accept during his heyday, and that we could still do to bear in mind. As a YouTube commenter put it today, “Music doesn’t have a ‘race’! Music is itself: music! Doesn’t matter who is making it: It is still music!”

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • Charlie Doherty

    It’s a sad day indeed (but a life well lived – he died at the ripe old age of 90!).

    Had no idea you played in a band in my neck of the woods in the ’80s Jon. Cool!

  • Karol

    Hmmm … So Bo Diddley’s riff was really Otis’?