Published Jan 19, 2012Johnny Otis, the musician and producer known as the "Godfather of Rhythm and Blues," died at home in the Los Angeles suburb of Altadena on Tuesday (January 17), the Associated Press reports. He was 90 years old.
Otis was born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes, and despite coming from Greek parents, felt a deep connection the black culture that surrounded him growing up in Berkeley, CA. He started a swing band in 1945 and later stripped down the big band lineup to form the California Rhythm and Blues Caravan.
He went on to play a key role in 1950s R&B. Most notably, he produced and played drums on the original version of "Hound Dog" by Big Mama Thornton, and co-wrote and produced Etta James's "The Wallflower." He scored a hit of his own with 1958's "Willie and the Hand Jive," and also penned "Every Beat of My Heart," which was popularized by Gladys Knight & the Pips in 1961.
Otis was also a radio DJ, pastor, organic grocer and club owner, and even dabbled in politics. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, and his son Shuggie Otis penned the 1977 hit "Strawberry Letter 23."
He is survived by his wife Phyllis, sons Shuggie and Nicky, daughters Janet and Laura, and grandchildren.