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Johnny Otis – the “godfather of rhythm and blues” – dies at 90

Johnny and Shuggie Otis.
Johnny and Shuggie Otis.
MFS Photo 4/flickr

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The composer of “Willie and the Hand Jive” and ambassador for black music and culture, Johnny Otis passed away Tuesday in his home in Altadena.

Otis, a white man of Greek ancestry who was born John Veliotes, grew up in an African-American section of Berkeley, California and used this cultural cross-pollination to evangelize black music to white audiences. Otis’ dark complexion and cultural identification with black music led many fans to assume that he was actually black, and he believed himself to be a curator of black popular music. His biggest hit, “Hand Jive,” sold more than 1.5 million copies and was later covered by guitarist Eric Clapton. He made his first splash in the music business as a drummer, backing pianist Count Otis Matthews until he progressed to fronting his own band. Otis was also an enigmatic Renaissance man, whose interests ranged from art and organic food to politics, which led him to open an organic market in Sebastopol and work as deputy chief of staff to state Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally.


What is the influence of Johnny Otis on modern music?