Johnny Otis

Dear Near Twin:

I was listening to your 2007 in review podcast. Enjoyable as usual. But I was surprised to find that *I* cast the the deciding vote in the the naming of Cast THIS, Pal! Cool.

You played a Christmas cut by Johnny Otis, who you said you weren’t familiar with. Since you are THE #1 music guru of the inestimable Lefty Brown, I thought I’d share this with you.

Johnny Otis is a guy born in 1921 of Greek heritage (given last name: Veliotes) who immersed himself in rhythm and blues. He rather reminds me a little of Ahmet Ertegun, another person of eastern Mediterranean heritage, in his case Turkish, who co-founded Atlantic Records.

Johnny Otis was a band leader, producer and A&R man who “discovered” Etta James, Jackie Wilson and Hank Ballard (who wrote “The Twist”). He produced Etta’s first hit, Roll With Me, Henry (The Wallflower), oft-covered since, as well as Big Mama Thornton’s original recording of Hound Dog three years before Elvis Presley’s version.

Otis had his own recording success doing Willie and the Hand Jive, which went to #9 on the pop charts in 1958. Eric Clapton covered it in 1974, and it went to #26. You might remember the song from the movie Grease.
Here’s Johnny performing it with Marti Adams and the Three Tons of Joy:

Though Hand Jive was his only pop hit, the Johnny Otis Orchestra had several R&B hits, usually with other vocalists such as Little Esther and Mel Walker.

He was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a non-performer in 1994. Here’s something from the Wikipedia post on him:
Frank Zappa has cited Otis as the inspiration for his distinctive trademark facial hair, stating in an interview conducted by Simpsons creator Matt Groening and Guitar Player magazine editor Don Menn that “it looked good on Johnny Otis, so I grew it.”

Otis maintains a popular radio show on KPFA, called The Johnny Otis Show.

There’s a singer named Shuggie Otis, who was/is a psychedelic soul/funk guy – I have one of his albums – who wrote and performed Strawberry Letter #23, later a hit for the Brothers Johnson. I did not know that Shuggie is Johnny Otis’ son.

Anyway, Gordon, thanks for the inspiration for the post.

All the best,

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