ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A pioneer of rhythm and blues has died. Johnny Otis was 90 years old and died at his home near Los Angeles. Otis was many things: band leader, composer, radio and TV host.
As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, he also launched the careers of some of R&B's finest singers.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Johnny Otis could write and sing his own songs and he had several hits, like "Willie and The Hand Jive."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLIE AND THE HAND JIVE")
JOHNNY OTIS: (Singing) He walked and strolled and Susie Q and do that crazy hand jive, too.
BLAIR: But Otis spent as much or more time developing the talents of others. Otis once said he could see something before anyone else. And he saw that something in a long list of great singers.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONGS, "HOUND DOG," "ROLL WITH ME, HENRY," "HIGHER AND HIGHER")
BIG MAMA THORNTON: (Singing) You ain't nothing but a hound dog.
ETTA JAMES: (Singing) You got to roll with me, Henry.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) All right...
JACKIE WILSON: (Singing) Your love lifting me higher...
BLAIR: Jackie Wilson, Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, to name a fraction of the artists Johnny Otis either discovered or nurtured.
Johnny Veloites grew up during the Depression. The son of Greek immigrants in a working-class neighborhood in Berkeley, California, he changed his name to Otis and played mostly in black clubs.
In 1989, Terry Gross of WHYY's FRESH AIR, asked Otis about his loyalty to black culture.
OTIS: I could not veer away because that's where I wanted to be. Those were my friends. That's what I loved. It wasn't the music that brought me to the black community. It was the way of life. I felt I was black.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
What was it about the way of life?
OTIS: Everything about it.
BLAIR: And he defended it as a civil rights activist. He went to demonstrations and wrote protest songs.
George Lipsitz, author of a biography of Johnny Otis, says the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in Otis' yard. But that didn't stop Otis from later writing a book about the Watts riots, arguing they were a logical reaction to police brutality and slumlords in the ghetto. Lipsitz thinks that's why Johnny Otis isn't better known today.
GEORGE LIPSITZ: It's as if he took a match and lit the rest of his career on fire. Because once you took public stands like that, you weren't going to be the curator of rock 'n' roll, like Dick Clark or Casey Kasem. You were somebody who was going to be outside commercial culture in this society.
BLAIR: Johnny Otis died on Tuesday at his home near Los Angeles. As Bob Dylan once put it: Johnny's career just dazzles the mind.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.