Did you ever see the 2008 music bio-pic Cadillac Records, written and directed by Darnell Martin? Set in Chicago, it tells the story of the seminal ‘race music’ Chess recording label from the early 1940s to the late 1960s. In the film is a scene where Leonard Chess (played by Adrien Brody) is fleetingly introduced to the young Etta James (played by Beyoncé Knowles) by an unacknowledged talent scout – unacknowledged in the movie at least.
In real life that character was one Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes, better known to popular music history as Johnny Otis and the father of Shuggie Otis.
Born in 1921 to Greek immigrant parents, Johnny Otis chose to live as a member of the African-American community in California.
“As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black,” he wrote. Later in life he referred to himself as “black by persuasion”.
Johnny Otis wrote for the Sentinel, one of LA’s leading black newspapers, became pastor of his own inter-racial church, hosted popular radio and television shows that showcased African American artists, and was Negro Achievements magazine’s “businessman of the year” in a 1951 cover story.
Ten years earlier he had married African American Phyllis Walker in violation of California’s inter-racial laws at that time. They had four children together and were married for 70 years.
By 1945 he was leading his own band. In his second recording session in LA he scored a national R&B hit with the instrumental Harlem Nocturne. It launched The Johnny Otis Show, which toured for over a year. Otis wrote many R&B hits and produced early recordings for Little Richard and Big Mama Thornton. His hit composition Willie and the Hand Jive was recorded by Eric Clapton in 1974.
Later in life, Johnny became active in politics. In the 1960s he unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the California State Assembly (under his much less well-known Greek name). He then became chief of staff for a Democratic congressman. Still later, he moved to northern California where he took up organic farming and writing books on African American social history. He was never far from music, though, continuing to own and operate live music venues, host radio programs, and teach music history.
Johnny Otis was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Etta James. He was also inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame. He died aged 90 in early 2012, just three days before Etta James, whom he had discovered on the west coast and taken to Chicago to begin her recording career with Chess Records.
Johnny Otis was a pioneer of anti-racism and is the godfather of rhythm and blues.
Johnny’s son, born Johnny Alexander Veliotes Jr in 1953, is better known as guitarist and singer Shuggie Otis. A year after his father’s death Melbourne saw Shuggie perform at Hamer Hall, in March 2013 on a triple bill with Robert Cray and Taj Mahal. Back in 1974, just before they went on to recruit Ronnie Wood, Shuggie was invited to join the Rolling Stones – he was flattered, but turned down the offer.
If you love blues music and old- school R&B, think about joining the Melbourne Blues Appreciation Society – go to www.mbas.org.au – and listen to the music on Melbourne’s PBS 106.7FM community radio: www.pbsfm.org.au/bluesroots