The death of L.A. Rhythm and Blues master, Johnny Otis, ends a chapter of Los Angeles music history passed on January17th at the age of 90. In 1947 he opened a club in Watts called the Barrelhouse Club where patrons could see all the new talent he founded. He was credited for discovering many artists including Etta James and recording the first version of “Hound Dog” in 1953 with Big Mama Thornton doing the vocals; three years before Elvis Presley released it. His biggest hit was “Willie and the Hand Jive” which peaked at #8 on the pop charts in 1958, and was brilliantly covered by Eric Clapton in 1974.
The song’s popularity also played in a major dance production from the 1978 movie “Grease” with John Travolta and Olivia Newton John.
Otis had a weekly T.V. show in Los Angeles in 1957 on KTLA where he’d showcase the hottest new local R&B artists. Johnny Otis was well known for his choice to live his professional and personal life as a member of the African-American community in Los Angeles. He had written, “As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black.” Otis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a non-performer and for his work as a songwriter and producer.
Growing up in L.A. I had seen the Johnny Otis Show many times and I remember those long drives back from El Monte talking to all my friends about how cool we were to have “crossed the tracks”, get liquored up and dance to a musical legend.
The fllowing video was taken from one of his T.V. shows and is backed up by Marie Adams and Three Tons of Joy.