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.
“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!”