The Once And Always Godfather:Johnny Otis ©2001JCMarion


In December of 1921 in the greater San Francisco area of California, John Veliotes was born. He moved with his family to a predominately Black neighborhood of Oakland as a young boy, and soon although he was a Greek-American he became Johnny Otis thought by most to be Black. As he absorbed the Black culture of his surroundings he was Black in every way except biologically. Spurred by the sounds of the big bands coming through the bay area, young Otis turned to music. He was especially intrigued by the Count Basie band and its landmark drumming practitioner Jo Jones who as much as anyone invented modern big band drums. The first musical combo that had Otis as a member was a local group called The Count Otis Matthews Houserockers in the late 30s.

The trail led to Reno, Nevada and then Denver where Johnny landed a gig with the territorial band of George Morrison and then a Midwestern based band of Lloyd Hunter. Soon a sporadic group was formed with his longtime friend Preston Love which was based out of Omaha, Nebraska. Within a few months an opportunity came for Otis to fill the drummer's chair with the band of Harlan Leonard in Los Angeles. By now in the wartime forties, the Black area of Watts was the center of the entertainment life along Central Avenue. Otis joined Leonard at the famous Club Alabam and the gig lasted for thirteen months. By 1944 Otis started getting area recognition as a session player and was on record for the first time on Illinois Jacquet's version of "Flying Home" parts 1 & 2 on Aladdin #101 in 1945. Other session opportunities followed with Wynonie Harris, Lester Young, and Johnny Moore's Three Blazers (including "Driftin' Blues" behind Charles Brown's vocal on that landmark R & B record).

Johnny soon founded a band under his own name to be the house band at the Club Alabam on Central Avenue. Such future jazz stars were part of the personnel of this band as Art Farmer, Curtis Counce, Paul Quinichette (soon to become known as the "Vice Prez" alluding to his stylistic resemblance to Lester Young), Buddy Collette, pianist Hampton Hawes (who would have a multi LP set in the fifties called "The All Night Session")and R & B organist Bill Doggett. In a short time in late 1945 Otis got the chance to record for Leon and Otis Rene's Excelsior Records, one of the very few Black owned music enterprises. It began with #136 - "Drop Another Nickel In The Juke Box", then #138 - "Daddy-O", #141 - "My Baby's Business", and then in early 1946 an instrumental version of the tune "Harlem Nocturne" which featured the alto sax of Rene Block. This record cemented the reputation of Otis and led to "name" gigs in the L.A. area. A number of Excelsior records followed, none with the hit caliber of "Nocturne" but of interest. Some of these were #152 - "Omaha Flash", #156 - "Miss Mitchell"; #157 - "Sgt. Barksdale" parts one & two; #536 - "Midnight At The Barrelhouse"; #541 - "Payday Blues".

During most of 1947 Otis and his now downsized musical combo toured with The Inkspots across the country. In 1948 Otis and a partner Bardu Ali opened a new R & B venue on Central Avenue they called The Barrelhouse. Soon it was a top spot for local R & B talent and attracted the attention of pioneering radio d.j. Hunter Hancock who began to mc weekly talent shows featuring promising amateur musicians and newcomers to the Watts area. Otis injures his hand and gives up drums while concentrating on the vibes and piano. His place on the drums is taken by Leard "Kansas City" Bell. In 1949 Otis discovered a whole stable of talent that would explode on the R & B scene in 1950. Texas teenager Little Esther, The Robins, and Mel Walker would make Johnny Otis a major force on the national R & B picture.

In January of 1950 Savoy #726 is selling big. "If I Didn't Love You So" with vocal by The 4 Robins as is "Double Crossing Blues" with Little Esther & The 4 Robins on Savoy #731, a double hit for Otis. That same month a tour sets out across the country called The Savoy Barrelhouse Caravan with Johnny Otis & his combo, Little Esther, The Robins, Red Lyte, and Mel Walker. In February Savoy #732 is released by Johnny Otis & The Robins on "Turkey Hop" parts 1 & 2. Also that month on Regent #1016 (affiliated label of Savoy) the Johnny Otis Quintette with Mel Walker on vocal of "Cry Baby" is released. Jesse Mae Robinson wins an out of court settlement as composer of "Double Crossing Blues" against Savoy for authorship of the tune. In April the Barrelhouse Caravan hits the Apollo Theater in New York for a week. Savoy #735 is released in early April pairing "Mistrusting Blues" and "Misery" with vocals by Little Esther and Mel Walker. The Savoy Caravan does huge business in Atlanta and Richmond and moves to Baltimore's Royal Theater. "Cry Baby" is selling big in New Orleans while "Turkey Hop" is big in Atlanta. Modern records releases "Mean Old Gal" / "Good Old Blues" by Otis with Little Esther.

In May of 1950 Savoy #743 "Blues Nocturne" and "New Orleans Shuffle" both instrumentals is released. On Regent, #1018 with Mel Walker on vocals features "Dreaming Blues" and "Helpless". In June Savoy #750 with Little Esther and Mel Walker with Johnny Otis on "Cupid's Boogie" and "Just Can't Get Free" is released. The Robins with the Otis combo are featured on Savoy #752 - "There's Rain In My Eyes" and "I'm Living OK". In August the parade of hits continues with Savoy #759 "Deceiving Blues" and "Lost Dream Blues" by Little Esther and Mel Walker. "Blues Nocturne" is a top ten seller in Cleveland. The Johnny Otis Orchestra has a new release on Regent in August - #1021 - "Freight Train Boogie" and "Good Time Blues" with a vocal by Red Lyte, and #1022 - "Lonely Blues" and "Strange Woman" with a Mel Walker vocal.

In October a unique record is released on Savoy #764 called "The Wedding Boogie" as by The Johnny Otis Congregation. The bride is played by Little Esther, the groom is Mel Walker, and the preacher is band member Lee Graves. The flip side is "Far Away Christmas Blues" with vocal by Esther and Mel. Regent #1025 features vocalist Marilyn Scott with the Otis band on "Beer Bottle Boogie" and "Uneasy Blues". Otis returns to Los Angeles to take part in the annual L.A. Sentinel Christmas Benefit Show at the Lincoln Theater. At years end Savoy #766 is released - "Rockin' Blues" and "My Heart Tells Me" with a Mel Walker vocal, and Regent #1028 - "Head Hunter" and "Cool And Easy" with a vocal by Red Lyte. The Johnny Otis Band with Little Esther, Mel Walker, and Red Lyte appear at the Elks Hall and the 5-4 Ballroom in Los Angeles. At the end of 1950 Savoy #775 - "Love Will Break Your Heart" and "I Don't Care" features vocals by Little Esther and Mel Walker. Little Esther and Johnny Otis are given the Best Jazz and Blues Artists Award of 1950 by Cashbox magazine in the 5th annual music poll.

In early 1951 Johnny Otis continues his great output for Savoy with the release of #777 - "Mambo Boogie" and "Gee Baby" with a Mel Walker vocal. Little Esther has left both Johnny Otis and Savoy Records and gone as a solo to King Records in Cincinnati. In March Otis records with a new female vocalist Linda Hopkins on "Doggin' Blues" and "Living And Loving" on Savoy #780, and appears at New York's Apollo Theater. Johnny Otis is slated to try his hand as a lead vocalist at an upcoming recording session. Savoy uses the Regent label for a shelved session with "I Dream" with Esther and Mel Walker and "Hangover Blues" on #1036. Even though Little Esther is on her own now she signs on with Johnny Otis for a major national tour of one nighters for four months beginning in mid May. In July Savoy #788 is released - "All Night Long" and "New Love" featuring Mel Walker. By August the instrumental "All Night Long" is a big seller on the West coast. In September Linda Hopkins with Otis and his band on #812 is out featuring "Warning Blues" and "I'll Ask My Heart". Johnny and Little Esther does big box office at L.A.'s Lincoln Theater. Savoy releases #815 with Johnny Otis redoing two of his biggest hits from the Excelsior label days - "Harlem Nocturne" and "Midnight At The Barrelhouse".

In November of 1951 Little Esther rejoins Johnny Otis as both are newly signed to the Mercury label. Savoy releases #821 - "Feel Like Crying Again" and "Sunset To Dawn" with vocals by Mel Walker, and #824 - "Chittlin' Switch" with vocal by The Vocaleers, and "Get Together Blues' with Little Esther. At year's end "Sunset To Dawn" is selling well in the South especially in Atlanta and Johnny Otis and his band are set to appear again at the annual Christmas Benefit show at the Lincoln Theater in L.A.

Starting out the new year Mercury Records releases #8263, two tunes with tenor sax great Ben Webster "Oopy Doo" (with a vocal by Otis) and "Stardust". In February the entire Otis group with Little Esther, Mel Walker, and Red Lyte return to Central Avenue in Watts for an appearance at the Club Alabam. In April Johnny Otis goes on tour with Willa Mae Thornton. In April Mercury #8273 is released - "Goomp Blues" and "One Nighter Blues", two Otis instrumentals. During the summer Mercury #8289 is released featuring vocals by Mel Walker - "Call Operator 210" and "Baby Baby Blues". In August Savoy releases another from off the shelf - "It Ain't The Beauty" vocal by George Washington, and "Gonna Take A Train" vocal by Red Lyte on #855. In October Mercury Records releases #8295 - "The Candle's Burning Low" and "Gypsey Blues" with Mel Walker vocals. At this time Otis starts doing some arranging and production work for Don Robey and his Peacock label. One of the results of this collaboration is the eternal landmark recording of "Hound Dog" by Willa Mae Thornton on Peacock #1612. At the end of the year Mercury Records #70038 features Johnny Otis with a new vocalist named Ada Wilson. The songs are "Wishing Well" and a cover of Joni James pop hit "Why Don't You Believe Me?". In December Savoy re-releases "The Wedding Boogie" and "Far Away Blues" as by the Johnny Otis Congregation, using the original release number #764.

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