Johnny Otis: Renowned Greek American musician

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By Georgene Dilernia.

Johnny Otis, born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes, was a Greek American musician known for his contribution to American R&B and rock and roll.

As well as being a musician, Otis was also a singer, songwriter, disc jockey, bandleader, record producer and talent scout. Otis had been nicknamed the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues,” illustrating his influence on the genre.

Let’s take a look into the music legend’s life and the accomplishments he made.

Johnny Otis was a Greek American musician known for his contribution to American R&B and rock and roll. Source: Ekathimerini.

Early Life:

Otis was born in Vallejo, California to Greek immigrant parents. His father, Alexander J. Veliotes, was a Mare Island longshoreman and grocery store owner, and his mother, Irene Kiskakes, was a painter.

Otis was the eldest of three children. He had a younger sister, Dorothy, and a younger brother, Nicholas, who grew up to be the US ambassador to Jordan and Egypt.

Otis grew up in a predominantly black neighbourhood in Berkeley, California, where his father’s grocery store was located. Being surrounded by this culture growing up, later influenced his involvement in the rise of R&B.

Otis grew up in a predominantly black neighbourhood in Berkeley, California. Source: SFGate

Music Career:

Otis began performing as a teenager for local functions after dropping out of high school and joined local band, the West Oakland House Rockers.

In the early 1940s, Otis played in swing orchestra, including Lloyd Hunter’s Serenaders and Harlan Leonard’s Rockets. He founded his own band in 1945 and they had one of the biggest hits of the big-band era, “Harlem Nocturne.”

During this time, Otis also became a talent scout and discovered numerous artists early in their careers who became big hits, including Little Esther, Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, Jackie Wilson, Johnny Ace and Hank Ballard.

In the early 1940s, Otis played in swing orchestra. Source: NPR.

Otis had seminal influence on R&B and rock and roll, establishing much of the foundation work for both genres.

Personal Life and Death:

On May 2, 1941, Otis married Phyllis Walker at the age of 19, whom he had known since childhood. They had four children together, two sons who later became musicians, Shuggie and Nicholas, and two daughters, Janice and Laura.

Otis died of natural causes on January 2012 in the Altadena area of Los Angeles.

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