Remembering Bandleader And Producer Johnny Otis Bandleader and producer Johnny Otis, who launched and then nurtured the careers of many of R&B's greatest singers, died Tuesday at his home near Los Angeles. He was 90. Fresh Air remembers Otis with excerpts from a 1989 interview.
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Remembering Bandleader And Producer Johnny Otis

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Remembering Bandleader And Producer Johnny Otis

Remembering Bandleader And Producer Johnny Otis

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.


BIG MAMA THORNTON: (Singing) You ain't nothing but a hound dog, been snooping 'round my door. You ain't nothing but a hound dog, been snooping 'round my door. You can wag your tail, but I ain't gonna feed you no more. You told me you was high class, but I can see through that.

BIANCULLI: Today, we salute Johnny Otis, the jazz and R&B musician, songwriter and bandleader who died this week at age 90. On Big Mama Thornton's original recording of "Hound Dog," Otis not only produced the record, but played the drums.


THORNTON: (Singing) You ain't nothing but a hound dog, been snooping 'round my door. You're just an old hound dog, been snooping 'round my door. You can wag your tail, but I ain't gonna' feed you no more. Oh, (unintelligible). Ah, (unintelligible) more hound dog.

BIANCULLI: Johnny Otis started out in the 1940s, leading a big band that scored a hit with its 1945 jazz recording "Harlem Nocturne." That band, like many big bands, soon broke up for financial reasons. After that, Otis organized a smaller unit to play the hybrid of swing and blues that became known as rhythm and blues.

Otis' Rhythm and Blues Caravan became the first R&B touring road show. Through his nightclub, his talent shows and his road show, Otis discovered such singers as Etta James, Little Esther, Jackie Wilson, Big Mama Thornton and Hank Ballard.

He had many R&B hits in the early '50s and, in 1958, his record "Willie and the Hand Jive" made it on the Top 10 Rock and Roll chart. Although Johnny Otis is a pioneer of R&B and played almost exclusively with black performers, he is a white, Greek-American. Genetically, I'm pure Greek, he said in 1994. Psychologically, environmentally, culturally, by choice, I'm a member of the black community.

Before we listen to Terry Gross interviewing Johnny Otis in 1989, let's listen to his first hit recording, the 1945 song titled, "Harlem Nocturne."



There's a great story behind recording this record. Would you tell us?

JOHNNY OTIS: Well, this goes back to the mid-'40s, and it was my first record date with my own band, as I recall, and we did three things. I went to the producer after we'd completed the third one, and I said, well, Mr. Rene, that's it. Three songs in four hours, and we got plenty of time left. He said, no. You've got that wrong. It's four songs in three hours. Now, get out there and get another song together.

So we were the house band at the club, Alabama, on Central Avenue here in L.A. at the time, and I remember when we would play this particular song, the chorus girls and the show girls would come out of their dressing rooms and dance on the balcony. And they would always ask us to play it, and I thought it must have some charm if the ladies liked it that well.

So I said, let's play that. And it was the stock arrangement that had been recorded once before by Ray Noble and an Earl Hagen tune. But I slowed it down, and I was a drummer then. I then went, boom, boom, boom on the tom-toms, and we recorded it. And the songs that we had done previously with Jimmy Rushing, the great Count Basie singer, and some wonderful arrangements, they didn't do it, but "Harlem Nocturne" became an instant hit.

GROSS: And when "Harlem Nocturne" became an instant hit and you started touring with Louis Jordan and with the Ink Spots, they were some of the biggest black acts of the time. Can you describe a little bit what the atmosphere was like at the concerts in which you shared the bill?

OTIS: Well, both of these people were so popular at the time, having had all these big hit records, that there was that same feeling you feel today before the curtain opens, that great anticipation. They're going to see Bill Kenny and the Ink Spots. They're going to see Louis Jordan. And we were lucky enough to be the band, and of course that gave us a lot of help.

GROSS: Did the audiences assume that you were black?

OTIS: Of course. In those days, many of the places we played - had they suspected I was white, we would have been arrested.

GROSS: Well, I remember when I interviewed Solomon Burke, he told a story about how, when one of his records crossed over to the country charts, he started getting invitations to play certain places in the South with white crowds who would have never asked him to play if they knew he was black. And he showed up to one of these places, and it was quite a scene.

Did anything similar ever happen to you?

OTIS: No. We're talking now - I assume we're back in the '40s. If we are, it was much different than the Solomon Burke days of the '50s or the '60s with Solomon Burke. You see, your life was on the line in those days. When our bus would cross the Mason-Dixon Line and the driver would say, well, we just crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, a pall would fall over the entire show. We'd all get quiet, because we knew we were down there where we had problems.

And many times, we came close to being hurt. One time, we stopped a bus to go to get some gas and my little singer, Little Esther, who was only 13, jumped off and went to the rest room. And I looked up, and there's a guy with a gun in my belly. And he's shaking and he's all excited because the little black girl went to the white women's bathroom. And I thought to myself, any death but this. So she came out and we went on down the road, but those things happened to us all the time.

That was the open version of white racism, as against the very subtle, pervasive and institutionalized version that we have today.

GROSS: In segregated places, were you treated as white or as black when you were traveling with black groups?

OTIS: In black - as black. There's nothing so unique about a light black person. That's always been the case. And if I'm sitting in the black side having dinner, nobody questioned it. He wouldn't be over there if he wasn't black and crazy, because we'd kill him.


GROSS: Did you do anything to look more black?


GROSS: Let me play one of the rhythm and blues records from the period that you made, and this is with the singer Little Esther, who we now know as Esther Phillips. And this is "Double Crossing Blues." Do you want to say anything about this? You write this song?

OTIS: Well, I can give you a little anecdote about it.

GROSS: Yeah.

OTIS: I was leaving my little chicken ranch in Watts back in the '40s, and with me were a group of guys I found at the Barrel House, where - I had a nightclub there called the Barrel House. And we were going to do their first record, and they became known as The Robins, and later The Coasters.

But Little Esther was the neighborhood little girl who used to help me with the other children catch my chickens when people would pick out the chicken they wanted. And then we would have refreshments later. And she ran up. She says, Johnny, let me go. Let me go. So I said, oh, get in. So she got in. We went to Hollywood, to the studio. And when we got there, we did the four sides by The Robins, and we had a few minutes left. So I told - I asked the producer, Ralph Bass. I said, Bass, we got some time. Let me get these kids together. I got a song I think would make sense.

He said, well, hurry up. You've only got a couple of minutes. So I taught it to them and we did it, and it was called "Double Crossing Blues." And he said - I said, can I do it one more time? Because she kind of giggled. He said, no, that's it. But, anyhow, that became the number one song of 1950, and it brought Little Esther to stardom, and it did an awful lot for us, too.

And, by the way, the bass singer that you will hear on this record is the voice later who became Charlie Brown. How come everybody's always messing with - the same guy. He was just a worker at my club, and I noticed he could sing and put him into this group and he wound up singing on this big hit record with Esther Phillips. Bobby Nunn is his name.

GROSS: And you're playing vibes?

OTIS: Yeah. And I'm playing vibes.

GROSS: OK. Here we go.


ESTHER PHILLIPS: (Singing) Been looking for you, Daddy. I just found you in time. You're with some other woman, and it's quarter to nine. What's the matter, Daddy? Don't my kisses satisfy? If I don't thrill you, baby, goodness knows how hard I try. Folks say that you've been cheating, and how I see it's true. But I can't quit you, baby, 'cause I'm so in love with you. What's the matter, Daddy? If you would only tell me why. If I don't thrill you, baby, goodness knows how hard I try.

BOBBY NUNN: (Singing) You stayed out last night, said you were playing cards. Can't understand it, baby, what make your big fat head so hard. I'm going to leave you.

GROSS: You discovered a lot of talent, not just Little Esther, Esther Phillips. What was your way of scouting for people?

OTIS: Actually, my first singer was Ernestine Anderson, when she was just a little girl.

GROSS: Really?

OTIS: Then - yeah. And then came Esther Phillips, but after Esther Phillips' amazing success and became the big child star of the African-American community nationally, then everywhere we played, people - they would bring me their sons and their daughters backstage. I guess they figured I was an expert who knew how to make stars out of kids, and that's how it started.

One day in Detroit, at the Paradise Theater, I asked the manager - I said, during this week that we'll be here, how about me doing a talent show to avoid having to have all these people coming around with their kids? He said, great. And we did. It was to have been one hour, but it stretched into two hours, and we found so many wonderful singers and players that day.

I found Little Willie John, Jackie Wilson and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters on that particular show. And there were probably others, but the record company I was scouting for, King, only wanted to deal with three at the moment. And I thought, years later, when Barry Gordy formed his great Motown story, I said, no wonder. Look at the reservoir of talent here in Detroit.

BIANCULLI: Johnny Otis, speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1989 interview with musician, songwriter, bandleader and talent scout Johnny Otis. He died Tuesday at age 90.

GROSS: We've been talking about rhythm and blues. When there was a transition between rhythm and blues and rock and roll, did you have to - did you find yourself changing the music, or were, maybe, the audiences changing that you were playing your music to?

OTIS: Yeah, that's true. When I was dealing with the classic rhythm and blues that we developed back in the '40s, we did a lot of bluesy material because the black audience demanded it. As the transition occurred and as it developed, we then had to play more animated jump blues, boogie styles and put on an act for white folks, because they wanted it to be - they wanted to see us, you know, work and sweat. And that's what they liked.

The early black audiences wanted a more musical, bluesy, jazz thing. The white audiences wanted that jump tune, boogie-woogie kind of thing.

GROSS: Well, I want to play a song that you had that was a hit on the rock and roll charts in 1958, and this is "Willie and the Hand Jive." Let's play it, and then we'll talk about it.


OTIS: (Singing) I know a cat named Way Out Willie. He got a cool little chick named Rockin' Millie. He can walk and stroll and Susie Q and do that crazy hand jive, too. Papa told Willie, you'll ruin my home. You and that hand jive have got to go. Willie said, Papa, don't put me down. They're doing that hand jive all over town. Hand jive, hand jive, hand jive, doing that crazy hand jive. Mama, mama, look at Uncle Joe.

GROSS: That's "Hand Jive," which was a big hit for my guest, Johnny Otis, back in 1958. Tell me about writing this song.

OTIS: My manager, the late Hal Zeiger, and partner back at that time, we had a hit in '57 called "Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me" with the great Marie Adams singing. And it became a hit, not here in the States, but in Europe and England, it was number one. So he went over to set up the tour. And when he got back, he said, listen. I saw something interesting. I saw the young people around the London area in the venues where they couldn't dance, at the concerts and the theaters.

As they sat there, they would do a thing that you guys in the big black bands used to do with their hands, you know, while the band was playing, and they call it hand jive. Why don't you write a song called "Hand Jive," and maybe we'll do some good over in Europe. Well, I did and, luckily, it became a hit everywhere.

GROSS: So the hand jive was, basically, kind of clapping and moving your hands.

OTIS: Yeah. While you're sitting.

GROSS: While you're sitting. And the dance, like, wasn't...

OTIS: Well, it became a whole dance later. Yeah.

GROSS: I want to play something that you're featured on from this new reissue called "The Capitol Years," and this is "Can't You Hear Me Calling."


GROSS: And you're singing on this.

OTIS: Yeah.

GROSS: And what are you playing?

OTIS: After a fashion.


GROSS: Oh, you sound really good on it.

OTIS: Oh, well. OK. You and my mother think so.


GROSS: OK. Well, let's give it a listen.


OTIS: (Singing) Can't you hear me calling, babe, babe, babe. Baby, please don't go. Baby, please don't go. Baby, don't you know I love, I love, I love, I love you so? And now you got me all alone, alone and blue, and I'm sitting here crying over you. Can't you hear me calling, baby, baby, please, don't go. Can't you hear me calling? I can't go on. And now you know you got me crying...

GROSS: Ben Vaughan wrote the liner notes for this record, and in it, he mentions that in one of your - I guess it's a publicity shot - that your goatee was airbrushed out so that you would look less ethnic. What was the story behind that?


OTIS: Oh, Hal Zeiger, the late Hal Zeiger, God rest his soul. He was my partner at the time, and he did these things without even asking me. And while he - you know, he wanted me to look less black. He wanted me to look less like a Greek. He wanted me to look like a nice, Anglo-Saxon WASP, which is hard to do, but he tried.

GROSS: So he airbrushed out the goatee?

OTIS: Yeah. I don't think that sold any records.


GROSS: Now, your family is Greek - was Greek?

OTIS: Yeah.

GROSS: Your parents?

OTIS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Were and are. Yes.

GROSS: And your last name was Veliotes?

OTIS: Veliotes.

GROSS: And when did you change it to Otis?

OTIS: The kids at school kind of made that decision for me. They decided not to deal with trying to remember how to pronounce that. They would say, Johnny Otis, and that's the way it stuck.

GROSS: So I know that your father had a grocery store. Was that in the same neighborhood that you lived in?

OTIS: Oh, yes. The grocery store was downstairs, and we lived upstairs.

GROSS: And this was in a black neighborhood?

OTIS: Yes, in the heart of the black neighborhood.

GROSS: So that, I guess, helps explain why you grew up with such a black identification.

OTIS: And that's also the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.

GROSS: Uh-huh. So...

OTIS: He might, in fact, had put it in a WASP neighborhood. Then what would have happened to me?


GROSS: Did you not think of yourself as being white when you were growing up?

OTIS: I didn't think about that at all. I had no concept about that. Luckily, my father was absolutely wonderful in that respect, and my playmates were - I didn't know it then, but they were black, African-American. I thought we were all the same thing. And I don't think it's so unique in America for white kids to grow up with black youngsters and come up together as brothers and sisters.

What might be unique is not to veer away. 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. The characteristics of the African-American community became my own, and I just wasn't willing to give that up to go become part of the mainstream community, where people felt superior to black people and they practiced democracy and preached racism. I didn't want to be part of that. I wanted to stay in that sweet, beautiful black place in the black community.

BIANCULLI: Songwriter, bandleader, musician and talent scout Johnny Otis, speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. He died Tuesday at age 90. Johnny Otis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. Among the many talents he discovered was Etta James, who died today of leukemia at age 73.

We'll feature Terry's interview with Etta James sometime next week. For now, let's hear the signature hit by one of Johnny Otis' biggest discoveries, Etta James, singing "At Last."

I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


ETTA JAMES: (Singing) At last, my love has come along. My lonely days are over, and life is like a song. Oh, yeah, yeah. At last, the skies above are blue. My heart was wrapped up in clover the night I looked at you.

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