His deeds were astounding in scope: He sang hit records, played on hit records, wrote and produced hit records, and helped break the careers of artists
like Hank Ballard, Jackie Wilson, and Etta James (who inducted Otis into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, and sadly passed away only three days
after him). He lived through Bird and Trane, through Brown v. Board and Barack Obama, through Kind of Blue and Sgt. Pepper and Watch the Throne. He hosted radio shows, ran for office, founded a church, wrote four books, and inspired a fabulous
biography by a renowned historian. And through it all he played R&B music.
The fact that he was a white man always seemed to matter little, least of all to Johnny Otis. He was born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes in California in
1921, the son of Greek immigrants, and from early childhood he loved African American culture with religious ferocity. He happily found that it loved
him back. In 1941, in violation of California's miscegenation laws, he married a pretty young woman named Phyllis Walker; they had four children
together and were married for 70 years. Otis's musical popularity in the black community was so great that in 1951 his head-shot—funnily and
fittingly—graced the cover of a magazine called Negro Achievements. He had a decades-long friendship with Malcolm X, dating back to Malcolm
Little's "Detroit Red" hustler days, and in his 1993 autobiography
Otis referred to him as his "role model." Most importantly, he spent the entirety of his life railing loudly and tirelessly against racial injustice,
long before such things were fashionable and long after they stopped being so.
Johnny Otis was fond of referring to himself as "black by persuasion," and I'm not sure there's ever been a more wonderful self-description for a man
with such a boundless love of culture—that's culture, period—or a more pithy indication of a complete and total anti-racist worldview. He was blessed
with considerable musical talent, though his abilities paled next to his freakishly gifted son, Shuggie Otis ("Shuggie" being short for "Sugar," itself a nickname for "John," and yes, the fact that Johnny Otis named his son after himself but opted
to call him "Shuggie" speaks generously to his parental character). He also had a world-class ear for the key of defiance: One of the great images of
1960s music is the cover to his 1968 album Cold Shot!, in which
Otis is flanked on either side by a teenaged Shuggie and singer Mighty Mouth Evans, the former flashing a peace sign, the latter a Black Power salute.
In between them stands Johnny, arm raised high, middle finger extended.
He had a massive and diverse catalogue—the luscious, faux-Ellington Harlem Nocturne," the
uptown-cum-downhome "Barrelhouse Blues," the magisterially NSFW "Signifyin' Monkey"—but his most well-known record remains 1958's stone-cold classic "Willie and the Hand Jive," an irresistible piece of musical nonsense that's so great it feels almost
primordial. It snatches the 3/2 clave rhythm known informally as the "Bo Diddley beat" and grooves like hell, goosed along by handclaps, a leering lead-guitar part, and an out-of-nowhere shout-out to Hoagie Carmichael's oddball standard "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief." Johnny Otis sings the daylights out of it, too, a small masterpiece of hip,