They call Johnny Otis the godfather of R & B. That might sound like hyperbole until you check out his career, now spanning five decades. Although many remember him only for his 1958 rock 'n' roll hit "Willie and the Hand Jive," Otis' accomplishments as a musician, songwriter, band leader and talent scout in rhythm and blues are mind-boggling. If there is a seeming anomaly in his career as a black-music pioneer, it is that Johnny Otis is a white man of Greek heritage.
"My dad was a grocer in the black community in Berkeley," he says. "He was a bighearted guy who didn't understand about racism. Everybody I came into contact with as a kid, all my playmates, were black. I didn't know we were white or black. I was around 13 when the ugly head of racism really reared up. I was told very diplomatically at school by a counselor that I should associate more with whites. After that I left and never came back to school. I never felt white. I wouldn't leave black culture to go to heaven. It's richer, more rewarding and fulfilling for me."
Now 63, Otis is back on the road, touring with a 13-member ensemble that recalls the legendary Johnny Otis Rhythm and Blues Caravan of the early '50s. Like that classic revue, the current show -- which plays at Charlie's Georgetown tonight and tomorrow -- features three vocalists, a seven-piece horn section and an eclectic repertoire stretching from swing, blues and ballads to R & B and rock 'n' roll standards. And, no, Otis is not too old to tour America with a busful of musicians and rock the joint.
"Old folks are just getting younger," he says, laughing. "I love going out on the road with a big band. We have a party 24 hours a day. There's a lot of fun and a lot of brotherhood in the band, and I love that. That's one reason I'm back. The other is that all of a sudden this R & B that I had a hand in creating, and which was mostly forgotten for awhile, is popular and being appreciated again. It's a happy time for those of us who are still here from that era. I guess I'm the only one with a band left."
Otis started in 1940 as a drummer for a blues band called Count Otis Matthews and His West Oakland House Rockers. After playing drums for a number of jazz bands he settled in Los Angeles, where he established his own big band at the Club Alabam, employing the likes of Bill Doggett, Big Jay McNeely, Art Farmer and Jimmy Rushing. He scored his first hit with the instrumental "Harlem Nocturne" in 1945 and also turned up as a drummer on seminal jazz recordings by Lester Young and Illinois Jacquet.
But the jazz era was coming to an end. Big bands were no longer economical, and the black working class was showing an appetite for more raucous dance beats, boogie-woogie and electric blues. In 1948 Otis and a partner opened the Barrel House, a nightclub in Watts that became wildly popular as the center for a new style synthesized from swing and blues -- rhythm and blues. It was at the Barrel House that Otis first organized the talent that would make him the most popular touring and recording R & B act of the early '50s.
"Once the Barrel House began rolling," he recalls, "I was fortunate enough to gather around me a very young, creative and energetic group of musicians. It was a creative time, as a host of black music forms were being put together to create something new. We never thought it would be taken seriously. There were a lot of people at the time who couldn't understand the music, who wanted to break it up, categorize it or look down on it. We were dealing with something that was growing out of the community, true folk music. It was a joy to perform, and it was great to see the people of Watts reacting to a music that reflected their lives."
As his Caravan swept across the country, breaking attendance records and spreading the new sound of urban R & B, Otis discovered artists for his own group and helped others get started -- Etta James, Esther Phillips, the Robbins (some of whom later formed the Coasters), Little Willie John, Hank Ballard, Jackie Wilson. He recorded a string of R&B hits for the Savoy label, and in the mid-'50s settled down and became a deejay. The audiences had become whiter and younger, and the more adult sound of R & B had given way to its adolescent stepchild, rock 'n' roll.
Otis, of course, had a hand in the rock 'n' roll era, too. Not only did he record his contagious "Willie and the Hand Jive," but he wrote "So Fine" for the Fiestas and "Every Beat of My Heart" for Gladys Knight, and backed Big Mama Thornton on the original "Hound Dog" and Johnny Ace on "Pledging My Love." In the late '60s, with the blues revival, Otis reorganized his band and recorded three new albums featuring his son, guitar whiz Shuggie Otis. Shuggie plays in the current Otis show, as does another son, drummer Nicky Otis.
Johnny Otis has always kept busy. In the '40s he ran the biggest chicken ranch in Los Angeles (where he first heard a 9-year-old Esther Phillips imitating Dinah Washington) and later became a TV show host. Since the '60s he has been active in civil rights and Democratic politics. During the '70s he started his own record label, Blues Spectrum, became an ordained minister and established his own interracial, nondenominational church whose congregation includes entertainers such as Etta James, Jimmy Smith and George Kirby. But don't try to tell him blues or R & B is the devil's music.
"That notion," he says, "is part of the fundamental Protestant syndrome. Unfortunately that idea has pervaded the black churches, which have copied far too much from the white, reactionary churches of the South and North. The idea that it's evil to play a beautiful African-American boogie-woogie is just silly. In my church we agree that we're not going to be concerned with that kind of nonsense -- with denominations, with dogma or with race. We're concerned with one thing, Jesus' commandment to love one another. We believe Christianity is as simple as that."
It's not just Otis' church that has been a success -- both his recording and performing careers have also taken off in the '80s. His 1981 release "The New Johnny Otis Show" was nominated for a Grammy, and his live appearances have been enthusiastically received. Nonetheless, Otis has grown concerned about his audiences.
"The thing that pains me," he explains, "is that we don't draw many young blacks. It is lamentable that this great heritage of African-American musical art is all but forgotten in the black community, particularly among the young people. They attach themselves to Prince or Michael Jackson to the exclusion of everything else. They don't know Mahalia Jackson or Dinah Washington or Count Basie or Ruth Brown. Young people are always going to have new music, and there's a lot of entertainment in today's music, but some of it is just exhibitionism. We've always had a lot of sexuality in black music, but in the past it was balanced with grace and sophistication."