Bandleader Johnny Otis, 'Godfather of R&B,' Dead at 90

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer wrote 'Willie and the Hand Jive'

johnny otis circa 1950
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Johnny Otis
By |

Johnny Otis, the bandleader, talent scout and songwriter who was often called the "Godfather of R&B," died on Tuesday at his suburban Los Angeles home. He was 90.

Otis, whose best-known song is "Willie and the Hand Jive," was leader of a big band in the Forties that augmented its jazz with jump-blues and gospel, helping carve the path for rock & roll. Among his discoveries were Etta James, Hank Ballard, Jackie Wilson and Big Mama Thornton, whose early version of "Hound Dog" Otis produced. A pianist and drummer, Otis performed on many other key rhythm & blues hits, such as Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love." Later in his career, Otis's band featured his two sons, Nicky, a drummer, and the guitarist Shuggie Otis, who went on to a solo career of note.

Greek by heritage, the elder Otis so loved African-American music and culture that he often said he was "black by persuasion." In 1948 he opened a Watts nightclub called the Barrelhouse. For the next few years, he scored a string of R&B hits with the Johnny Otis Orchestra and toured the country with a "caravan" of featured singers. After establishing himself as a radio personality in L.A. in the Fifties, he became a decades-long fixture on the radio in the San Francisco Bay Area. Otis was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a songwriter and producer in 1994.