By Art Menius 1/19/2012
Word this afternoon is that we lost another pioneer of 20th Century American music at age 90.
Calling Johnny Otis “The White Godfather of Rhythm & Blues” or the composer of “Willie and the Hand Jive” hardly does justice to a life led fully, robustly, and well. Otis was came as close as anyone to being a Renaissance man during the last century. Otis kept a performing career as band leader and piano player going for 70 years, just like his marriage. He played on records from folks ranging from Lester Young to Johnny Ace. When he cuts his 16 piece jump band down to a small ensemble, R&B was in full form. His “Harlem Nocturn” was one of the first hits for the new form in 1946.
Otis was a father with Shuggie achieving his own fame as a musician.
He bagan his career on radio as an R&B DJ in the 1950s and moved on the LA TV, then spent thirty years hosting an oldies show on Pacifica’s KPFK until 2005.
Along the way he had time to work as a preacher during the 1970s in addition to being a serious visual artist (paintings and sculpture). He even found time to serve as deputy chief of staff for a US Congressman.
Concerned for the environment, in his 70s, Otis became a large scale organic farmer and opened an organic grocery.
Otis is one of the last exemplars of Americans of a certain generation born between the wars who embraced African-American life, who, in Otis’ words became “black by persuasion.” This effect of the Jazz Age was an essential forerunner of the Civil Rights Movement.
Johnnie Otis was a social activist and author whose four books addressed topics as diverse as his musical career, cooking, and the Watts riots of 1965. The latter was a supportive note from someone who has suffered through the KKK burning a cross on his lawn. His activism, according to NPR today, prevented Otis from achieving the mainstream success of a Dick Clark or Kasey Kassem.
Johnny Otis was the epitome of a certain kind of brave, visionary 20th Century American.