Welcome to The Johnny
By T.E. Mattox
f ever a musician could honestly say, 'been there, done that'
my money is on a man named Johnny Otis. Otis was born Ioannis Alexandres
Veliotes to Greek parents in Vallejo, CA the last month of 1921. Not
long after, the family moved south to Berkeley where 'Johnny' Veliotes
spent his formative years in the surrounding Bay Area neighborhoods.
Leaving school to focus on music, Johnny's primary education fell under
the tutelage of a host of veteran musicians from several of America's
best known black 'territory bands.' It would be those years of musical
experience and life lessons that would help shape both his character
and his career.
Johnny Otis did it all; a multi-talented performer who
sang, played drums, vibes and the piano. He was a bandleader, songwriter,
producer, promoter, club owner, talent scout, and publisher. At one
time, he managed his own record label, worked regularly as a radio disk
jockey and hosted a long-running music and dance program in the early
days of television that predated Dick Clark's 'American Bandstand.'
Johnny Otis was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall
of Fame in 1994 the same year he received the coveted Pioneer Award
from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. The Blues Hall of Fame engraved
Otis' name onto their honor rolls in the year 2000. Never a person to
rest on his laurels, Johnny Otis became a noted author and columnist,
worked tirelessly as a civil rights advocate, even threw his hat into
the political ring. He became an ordained minister, was literally a
walking encyclopedia of music and history, eventually teaching at the
college level, and was widely known in the world of fine arts for his
paintings and sculptures. Johnny Otis was truly a man of Arts and Letters.
He led an amazing life especially when you realize that it all began
with just a promise and a pair of drum sticks.
"The reason I started playing drums"
Johnny said, "was in Berkeley, California I had a friend who
actually lived in Oakland, and we used to see each other, just childhood
buddies, you know when we were teenagers?
Midnight at the Barrelhouse Vol. 1 Album Cover on
Midnight at the Barrelhouse Vol. 1 Back Cover discography
His name was Otis Matthews, we called him 'Count'
Otis Matthews because he played the piano. He didn't play like Count
Basie, though. His family was from the Mississippi Delta area and he
was a boogie-woogie blues barrelhouse player and singer. So Count Otis
told me once, 'I'm gonna' get a band together and you're gonna' be the
drummer.' I said, 'Oh yea!' And we did.
We found some old raggedy drums and he told me the
main thing you have to know. You're all excited about the Count Basie
swing and the Gene Krupa and the Jo Jones, but there's one number I
want you to play my way when we come to it. 'You just play shave and
a haircut, six bits.' I said, 'What's shave and a haircut, six bits?'
He said just go, (Johnny raps it out on the table) 'Tap, tatatap,
tap...Tap Tap. And don't vary it. And I'm gonna' sing.' And that was
my first experience with that beat which later became 'Hambone' and
'Bo Diddley' and 'Hand Jive.' So, little by little, I was playing the
drums, I thought."
The Road Beckons
Do you remember your first paying gig? "A man
named Robert Johnson took Count Otis and myself and we went to Reno,
Nevada to play a job. This was in the '40's and the job, the man offered
us $45 a week. My God, that was twice as much as my father was making
at the time. So we got an old, raggedy car and went to Reno, Nevada
but when we got there it was $45 for the three of us! Which was still
about what my dad was making! (laughing) We played from seven
o'clock in the evening to 4 o'clock in the morning every night. The
man said don't worry though, you'll make a lot of tips. We never made
a penny! It was a little funky place, they were trying to be
a casino, but there was nothing. And we lived there. The man owned the
hotel, so we stayed there and ate there. And at the end of the week,
he'd take the rent and the food out, and we owed him $15 apiece!
So we left there in the middle of the night and went
to Denver, Colorado. And that's where I joined George Morrison's Band.
That was the first real PROFESSIONAL, professional job. And from George
Morrison, I went to Lloyd Hunter, which was really a wonderful thing
because it was one of the black territory bands of the day and they
played the Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman
kind of stuff, so that was a great experience. I stayed with Lloyd Hunter
until I was called by Harlan Leonard of the Kansas City Rockets to come
to L.A. and be their drummer and that's how I got to L.A."
"In L.A. at the Club Alabam, the man who owned
it took a liking to me and when Harlan Leonard's engagement was finished
he let me be the band leader and I got my big band together. And since
that time, that would have been 1943, I've had a band of my own."
Central Avenue and more specifically, the Club Alabam
located next door to the Dunbar Hotel at 42nd and Central was the Mecca
for all things music in Los Angeles. On any given weekend you might
spot Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, a
host of Hollywood celebrities or even 'The Brown Bomber' heavyweight
boxing great, Joe Louis. Central Avenue in the 30's and 40's was THE
place to be.
"The Club Alabam was our Cotton Club West."
Johnny said. "There's been a lot of advertisement about the
Cotton Club but what people don't understand is Central Avenue, the
African-American community of Central Avenue was our Harlem Renaissance
transplanted to the West Coast. The Club Alabam was a big cabaret, large
with a big balcony around it, a big stage and a great big dance floor
that doubled as the stage when the floor shows came on twice a night.
It was wonderful. It was full scale chorus girls, 'soubrettes' and that
name has been lost. It means the leading chorus girls, those that did
the specialties. Showgirls who did nothing but just parade with big
costumes on and chorus girls of course danced and we had the big band
there. The stars of the day came through and they were featured. 'Moms'
Mabley, the Peters Sisters, the Step Brothers. And at that time these
were great artists and I got the chance to play with them."
"We combined swing, a little bit of bop and country
blues and put it together. It was later to be called, 'Rhythm
"From the Club Alabam, a man came in; he heard
us and recorded us. And THAT day, we caught a hit record. But it was
a happy accident. It was my first record date and Count Basie loaned
me Jimmy Rushing to sing with me. He gave me some arrangements so I
could come off well. So we went in and we recorded and we were very
well rehearsed. I went into the control room, and I say, 'Well Mr. Rene,
That's it baby, I did 'em. Three sides and the four hours aren't even
up yet.' He says, 'No, you've got it wrong. It's four sides in three
hours.' He says, 'you've got about twenty minutes to do one more.' So
I went in the studio and the guys are putting their horns away, I say
'wait, wait come back, we've got to do another one. So when we
came back, I remembered at the Club Alabam I had a stock arrangement,
a song that had been recorded once by Ray Noble but done in an entirely
different manner. And we put a jungle rhythm beat to it. And the chorus
girls would come out on the balcony and shake and dance 'cause they
liked it. I say, 'let's do that.' And we did and THAT was the hit. The
other things didn't even mean much at all. It was a happy accident and
that got us started.
The song was 'Harlem Nocturne.'
The Best of Johnny Otis album
"We traveled for a couple of years all over
the country including an original INK SPOT tour, with the real INK SPOTS.
And then I came back home about 1947, it was just about finished for
big bands, the Big Band thing. I broke my band down to a smaller band;
most of us did, and opened a place called The Barrelhouse. We
decided we would do strictly blues, of course we didn't know it but
by breaking our bands down from big bands, and that included myself
and T-Bone Walker and Joe Liggins and Roy Milton we were actually creating
a new style, but we didn't know it. (laughing) Rather than eight
brass I had now only one trumpet and one trombone. Instead of five saxes,
I had just two, a tenor and a baritone. But that striving to maintain
some semblance of a big band actually brought a whole new flavor and
new sound. We combined swing, a little bit of bop and country blues
and put it together. It was later to be called, 'Rhythm & Blues.'
The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues
Johnny Otis is often referred to as the 'Godfather'
of Rhythm and Blues. When asked about the title, he just shook his head.
"I'm embarrassed by that, because all the great brothers and
sisters through the years who contributed to that. My agent says, 'shut
up and take it.' (laughing) But I can't, it's dishonest. I was
part of it, but surely not the leading figure."
As humble as Mr. Otis was, very few can doubt his innate
ability to find raw talent, guide them through the studio process only
to walk out weeks, sometimes just days later with a highly polished
recording and more often than not, a chart single or two. That list
of artists' stretches across generations and genre's, but to give you
just a taste
Etta James, Jackie Wilson, Little Esther Phillips,
Big Jay McNeely, and Big Mama Thornton.
He relents "Yeah, I know I did that. When the
big band thing died and we broke it down, I opened the Barrelhouse out
in Watts. We decided to go strictly blues, no sophisticated jazz arrangements
blues. And a certain kind of comedy they used to have in the theaters
back East, like the Apollo. It was a success from the first day; the
place was packed because the people of the black community were interested
in what can probably be described as their 'folk music.' That kind of
not the deep country blues and not the sophisticated jazz
blues, but in between; a thing that was to be called 'Rhythm and Blues.'
This is what they liked and this is what we began to evolve with. We
recorded again and this time I caught big hits with Little Esther Phillips
and we were on the road again."
The Savoy Collection
Little Esther became a recording phenomenon from the
very start in the 1950's, scoring two, No. #1 hits on the R&B charts.
Tell us how you first met her? "Just before Esther passed away,
I was pastor of the Landmark Community Church and at that time Esther
was one of our members. She was having problems with alcoholism and
with drug addiction and she would come by. And one day there was a young
man, like yourself, who was interviewing us at the church and he said,
'now when did you first meet Esther? Just as you just asked me. And
Esther was there, of course. I said, 'Well I met her at the Largo Theater
when she was thirteen years old, I heard her singing.' She said, 'No,
That's not the first time.' Now this was so many years later and I had
it backwards. I said, 'What do you mean?' She said, 'The first time
you met me was in your backyard, at the chicken ranch where you had
the chickens.' So, what I had was, in Watts at night I ran the club,
In the daytime I had the Progressive Poultry
Company!" (laughing) "And I raised chickens. My
bass player and I had a couple of old ice cream trucks and we would
deliver and people would come. The Watts folk would come, you know Southern
people want to pick the chicken out." (he points) "That
One! And here's a pen twice as big as this room, with two hundred Rhode
Island Reds in it, and the lady says, 'I want that one.' Well (Otis
is shaking his head) they ALL LOOK ALIKE
they're CLONES! But
I had these little kids who would run and catch them for me, but mostly
they'd miss, get another one. And Esther said, 'I was ONE of THOSE kids!'
I said, 'REALLY?' She said, 'I even sang for you.' And suddenly I KNEW
who she was, because we had just finished catching chickens and selling
them and there was a lull. It was a hot summer day and we sat under
these eucalyptus trees and the wife brought us some Kool-Aid and some
cookies and we were just taking a rest and I heard a little girl sing
around the tree, singing like Dinah Washington. I said, 'Who is that?'
And they said, 'Her!' And she was a beautiful little black girl with
bright eyes. I said, 'Come here, honey. Was that you?' She was about,
I don't' know eight, maybe? She said, 'yeah.' And I hugged her. I remember
that, but I didn't place that person as being Esther Phillips who I
found later at that talent show at the Largo Theater. She never forgot
it. And I didn't either; I just didn't realize it was her."
Do you ever feel that you have some special skill or
ability to recognize talent in others? "You know, I'm really
thankful about that because I seem to be able to see something out on
the horizon, early. I'll explain a couple of instances to you. One day
in Cincinnati at the Manse Hotel where we used to stay, I was out on
the porch waiting for my guy to bring the car around. We were going
to go to King Records which was stationed there. I was under contract
with them at the time and they had a recording studio and a young Ray
Charles was sitting there too. He was a piano player with Lowell Fulson
at the time. He said, 'where you going Johnny?' I said, 'I'm going down
here to King.' He said, 'Take me with you, I wanna' go over there and
try out.' I said, 'Come on, I'm a producer there.' And I loved him,
'cause I'd heard him play and sing. We go by there and I told Syd Nathan,
I said, 'Syd, I got a young kid here you gotta' hear this boy play the
piano and sing, he's marvelous. Okay, so they set him up the studio
and Syd Nathan and I and a few of his henchmen sat on the other side,
you know in the control room. And Charles started singing and playing
and he sang very much like Charles Brown in those days and Syd turns
to me and says, 'I don't need any poor man's Charles Brown, forget it.'
And he walked out. But a few years later when Ray Charles was just setting
the world on fire, I saw Syd Nathan, but he refused
he said, 'WAS
NOT!' I said, 'Yes it WAS, it was Ray Charles.' (laughing)
The same scenario unfolded with Esther Phillips when
visiting RCA Victor in Hollywood and Johnny got a similar response.
"That's a poor man's Dinah Washington, who needs that? And Esther
became a big star." Johnny's laughing and he leans toward me
and says, "I took ETTA JAMES' record to someone and in that
case they just weren't interested. They didn't hear anything in her
I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed, but you would
think people would start paying attention? They finally did after one
very special talent show at the Paradise Theater in Detroit. "On
THAT day I found Little Willie John, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters
and Jackie Wilson. That night, by the way I remember that Jackie Wilson
I heard something in him, that gospel, wonderful flavor. I knew that
they were not going to be interested in him singing 'Danny Boy' and
'My Buddy' and 'Trees.' This is the way he sang then, so I wrote him
a little blues ballad and he sang it for them (King Records)
the next day. But they didn't like him, so they gave it to the Midnighters
and the ballad did nothing. But ten years later, Gladys Knight recorded
it and it became her first big hit, 'Every Beat of My Heart.'
Speaking of writing
tell us about Etta James and
'Dance with me, Henry.' "Roll with me, Henry it was originally."
Johnny corrects me. So why did you change it? "I didn't change
it. I wrote it as 'Roll with me, Henry' it was Etta James' idea. That
was her song, but all she had was that phrase. And she had Hank Ballard's
'Work with me, Annie' melody. Johnny breaks into song, 'Roll
with me, Henry. Roll with me
' So I wrote a whole song
to it, and Hank Ballard and I and Etta James became partners. But it
meant dance with me, but somehow the people they got edgy about
it. It's too sexy. I said, listen to the words, 'get the lead out
of your feet, come on learn some dancin' if you want romancin' but
they said 'no, we better change it, they'll think you're talking about
sex.' So they changed it to 'The Wallflower.'" (Otis laughs)
"What a crock! And then later, what's her name uh, Georgia Gibbs
they were still uneasy and they changed it to 'Dance with me, Henry.'
Which is what it meant anyhow
Let's talk a little about 1958. It turns out to be a
pretty good year for you. You release the song, 'Willie and the Hand
Jive.' "Yeah, a man named Tom Morgan who was my producer,
if it were not for him
because my manager didn't like 'Hand
Jive.' He had been in England setting up a tour as a result of a
hit record we had at Capitol called, 'Ma, He's Makin' Eyes at Me.'
But it was a hit only over there, in England, and South Africa and Australia;
all the British Empire places. When he came back he said, 'Hey, the
tours set BUT I saw something, the British kids sitting in these venues
where they can't dance
theaters and concerts. And they're doing
what you guys in the old black bands used to do." Johnny starts
slapping his hands together. "They're doing that stuff with
their hands and they call it hand jive. Write a song called 'Hand
Jive.' So I did and we had a meeting, Tom and I and Hal and Hal
hated it. He said, 'That's terrible and he tore it up and threw it in
the waste basket. But Tom Morgan picked it out of the waste basket and
said, 'You're crazy, that's cute.' And he put it out; he overruled him
and put it out. Thank God, because we almost lost a hit record."
If you listed the number of musicians and singers that
Johnny Otis has written, recorded or played with over the years, it
would read like the Index from the Encyclopedia of Rock, Jazz and Blues.
But there is one legendary saxman that always put a smile on Johnny's
face. His name was Eddie
Vinson, friends just called him 'Cleanhead.' Johnny starts to laugh
and says, "Oh yeah, my baby." He continues to laugh
as he remembers a particular show in Canada. "I don't think
alcoholism is funny at all, (still laughing) it's tragic. In
fact it contributed to Eddie leaving us prematurely. But some of the
things he's done. (laughing) He and Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker
were my featured artists on the show for a long time. Once in Montreal,
I announced him, 'Ladies and Gentlemen, a great man of American Music.
A person who transcends many lines
Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues,
Swing, Jazz. The one and only, Mr. Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson.' And I
look over at the spotlight and he's not there. And people are laughing.
I'm saying to myself, 'they're laughing at me, because he hasn't shown
But, he was so intoxicated he couldn't walk. He was
crawling and when he went by me, he gave me the salute. He got to the
stool, and crawled up on the stool and I said, 'Oh my goodness.' He
had the ability, no matter what his condition was, to sing and play.
You'd never know; he wasn't impaired that way. I don't recommend it,
and I'm not laughing because it's funny
.but that surely happened."
I mentioned that I'd talked to Mister Cleanhead not
long before his passing at his house in South Central L.A. Johnny nods
and informs me. "He (Vinson) lived next door to a very
historic place. It's no longer there. Ivie's Chicken Shack. Back in
the 40's it was a beautiful art deco restaurant called Ivie's Chicken
Shack. It was Ivie Anderson's restaurant. I always think of that when
I think of where Eddie lived."
How did you get to know Sam Cooke? "Sam and
I belonged to the same church. This was back in the 50's. It was a big
church in the West Adams area in Los Angeles. And it was about a 2000
capacity and the church is full one Sunday morning. We're sitting there
and the preacher, as most preachers with his commercial sense, we were
very well known at the time. So he pointed us out and had us take a
bow, which was embarrassing to begin with, and then he made a remark.
The preacher said, 'Brother Johnny and Brother Sam have been out there
doing what they do, but one of these days they're gonna' stop playing
the devil's music and come home.'" (Johnny laughs) "Sam
looked at me and he whispered, 'Did he REALLY say that?' I said, 'Yeah,'
and we both resigned on the spot." (laughing) "The
idea that something as beautiful as what Sam Cooke does, or Ray Charles
or Aretha Franklin, being described as the devil's music
felt that it was competition to him, that's what it really was, they
knew better. All of them couldn't have been that ignorant."
Anybody you didn't have the chance to work with that
you wish you had? "You know who I like, Big Maybelle. I would
have loved to record Big Maybelle, but we never did, of course."
As you reflect on your journey so far, you've spanned
the music industry spectrum, producing and performing in multiple styles
and genres over all mediums; recordings, radio, television, and now
even the written word
its luck. Sometimes
when something nice would happen to me I would say, 'Imagine this happening?"
And there are people on every corner who have a thousand times as much
talent as me. But you just have to be lucky and be in the right place
at the right time."
I could maybe agree to 'the right place at the right
time' scenario IF Mr. Otis had been a one hit wonder or had just
one successful venture into the music business. But this is the same
man who once had Ten, Top 10 songs on the Rhythm and Blues charts in
a single year. I must repeat
Ten R&B Top 10's in one year!
Johnny Otis's phenomenal music career mirrored America's
coming of age during the 20th Century. As thousands came home from war
the 1940's witnessed the nation's long awaited and euphoric transition
back into peacetime. The country was ready to celebrate and with pockets
flush with back pay, John Q. Public let the good times roll. The Swing
Era of the Big Bands had reached its zenith and a musical shift began
to change the tempo. Otis, along with his peers and fellow musicians
created, produced and recorded something fresh and innovative that reflected
that national attitude. According to Johnny, "It contained the
blues element that was the most important feature, or course. And boogie
woogie piano and twangy electric guitar. But in addition it features
horn sections very often
and echoes of swing riffs, even
bebop riffs and gospel music, you know? So you put all of that
together and you have the classic Rhythm and Blues that was born and
nurtured in L.A. and New Orleans. New
Orleans is a very important incubator for the Rhythm and Blues sound."
Yet, Johnny Otis continued to push the boundaries and
seek out and mentor new talent. His groundbreaking work with Big Mama
Thornton, Johnny Ace and Little Richard would eventually be recognized
for what it was, the early stages of an even edgier sound. Hindsight
being what it is, when you listen to some of those early Savoy tracks
like 'Rockin' Blues' or 'Little Richards Boogie' and
'Hound Dog' on Peacock, it becomes immediately obvious that those
are without question, some of Rock and Roll's earliest heartbeats.
Although we lost Johnny Otis a little more than a year
ago, his legacy and music lives on through every artist he introduced
and every side that he recorded. Thanks for sharing Johnny, we sure
do miss you.
"Mr. Cleanhead" Vinson; Blues
Blues and Lives Well-Lived