"Willie and the Hand Jive" singer Johnny Otis dies at 90

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 19, 2012 7:33 PM
"Willie and the Hand Jive" singer Johnny Otis dies at 90

By Piya Sinha-Roy

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Johnny Otis, singer of the 1958 hit "Willie and the Hand Jive", has died in California at the age of 90.

Otis died on Tuesday in the Los Angeles suburb of Altadena, his friend and music historian Tom Reed told Reuters.

"His role in pop and rock'n'roll music made him a legend, he could do it all. He is one of the greatest talents of American music and he was a great American," said Reed.

Born John Alexander Veliotes in December 1921 to Greek-American parents in northern California, the young musician grew up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Berkeley, immersing himself in their culture and music, listening to blues, gospel and swing sounds.

Otis founded his own band in the mid-1940s and scored his first hit with the song "Harlem Nocturne". He went on to have R&B hits with "Mistrustin' Blues" and "Double Crossing Blues" in the 1950s and "Willie and the Hand Jive," in 1958.

The singer also composed Etta James' first hit, "The Wallflower" which gained chart success in 1955, the 1961 hit "Every Beat of My Heart" for Gladys Knight and the Pips, and produced "Hound Dog," made famous by Elvis Presley in 1956.

Otis became a disc jockey for Los Angeles radio station KFOX, and was also heavily involved in politics and the civil rights movement. He wrote about both in his 1968 debut book, "Listen to the Lambs," in which the 1965 Watts riots played a central theme.

He also became an ordained minister, opening the Landmark Community Church in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. He later moved back to northern California to become an organic farmer.

But the pioneering musician never moved away from his first love, music, and toured well into his 70s, headlining blues and jazz festivals along with his son, Shuggie Otis.

Otis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

(Reporting By Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Jill Serjeant)