While James Brown was considered the godfather of soul music, for many music critics, Johnny Otis was considered the godfather of rhythm and blues. But what his many fans across the United States didn’t know was that he was, in fact, a Greek American.
Over the course of his long career, Johnny Otis wore many hats and he was a pioneer in many ways. He was a conductor, talent scout, singer, drummer, pastor, journalist, television host and radio producer.
Between 1950 and 1952, Johnny and his band recorded fifteen of the top 40 R&B hits. He discovered, produced and promoted such legends as Etta James, Little Esther, Big Mama Thornton and Jackie Wilson.
There is even an unsubstantiated story that he was responsible for inventing the new term “rock and roll” as rhythm and blues morphed into rock and roll during the decade of the 1950s.
He was even briefly dubbed “The King of Rock and Roll” early in this process – before Elvis ripped off the crown and carried it to his grave.
Johnny Otis was born Ioannis Alexandros Veliotes on December 28, 1921 in Vallejo, California. Her Greek immigrant parents were Alexander Veliotes, owner of a grocery store, and painter Irene Kiskakes. He grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood, and early in his life he decided that was where he belonged.
âAs a child, I decided that if our society dictated that you had to be black or white, I would be black,â he said.
At 19, and despite his mother’s disapproval, the Greek-American musician married his childhood sweetheart, 18-year-old African-American and Filipino Phyllis Walker. The couple were forced to flee and marry in Reno, Nevada.
Johnny Otis began his musical career as a drummer and became a conductor in the late 1940s. He released a series of successful records under the name The Johnny Otis Orchestra (1948-1957) and he has titled “The Johnny Otis Show” from 1958 to 1969.
By the end of the 1960s, rock and roll and R&B were becoming a thing of the past, and Otis was making less and less music every year, both in the studio and on stage. In the early 1970s, he founded a blues label called Blues Spectrum.
In the 1980s, he reinvented himself once again by becoming a radio show host in California. During the 1990s and 2000s, he continued to tour and release albums sporadically. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2017.
Johnny Otis an African American rights activist
Growing up in an African American neighborhood, he spent his early years immersed in black culture and music. Identifying more with African-American culture than with his own Greek origins, led him to adopt a new name, feeling it sounded darker.
For Otis, identity was more about culture than color. Living as a “black” man, Otis became part of a world he felt more comfortable in. As an R&B musician he was surrounded by African Americans. He understood black culture better than his family’s Greek culture.
It was only natural that Otis became a staunch civil rights activist and at one point even befriended Malcolm X.’s black community in LA, including a condemnation of California’s separate housing laws.
The Greek-American musician never lied about his real roots, but he was so widely regarded as a black American that one night in 1960, white racists burned a cross on his lawn. Even that did not deter him from continuing to support the cause of equal rights. In 1979, Otis told the Los Angeles Times, âYes, I chose, because despite all the difficulties, there is a wonderful richness in black culture that I prefer. “
His activism also appears in his music. The 1965 Watts Riots inspired him to write âListen to the Lambs,â a song about racial oppression and the plight of black America.
In 1975 Otis was ordained a minister and three years later founded the New Landmark Community Gospel Church in Santa Rosa, California. He presided over the services there until the church closed in 1998.
He and his beloved wife Phyllis were married for 71 years, until Otis died of natural causes in Altadena, Calif. On January 17, 2012.