Rhythm and blues legend Johnny Otis, 90

A 1985 file photo of blues and gospel

A 1985 file photo of blues and gospel band leader and preacher Johnny Otis with his paintings and sculptures in the background. Otis penned the 1958 hit "Willie and the Hand Jive." (Credit: MCT/Los Angeles Times)

Johnny Otis, the "godfather of rhythm and blues" who wrote and recorded the R&B classic "Willie and the Hand Jive" and for decades evangelized black music to white audiences as a bandleader and radio host, has died.

He was 90.

Otis, who had been in poor health for several years, died at his home in the Los Angeles foothill suburb of Altadena on Tuesday, said his manager, Terry Gould.

Otis, who was white, was born John Veliotes to Greek immigrants and grew up in a black section of Berkeley, where he said he identified far more with black culture than his own. As a teenager, he changed his name because he thought Johnny Otis sounded more black.

"As a kid, I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black," he once explained.

His musical tastes clearly reflected that adopted culture and even after he became famous, his dark skin and hair often led audiences and club promoters to assume he was black like his bandmates.

Otis was leading his own big band in 1945 when he scored his first big hit, "Harlem Nocturne." In 1950, 10 of his songs made Billboard Magazine's R&B chart. His "Willie and the Hand Jive" sold more than 1.5 million copies and was covered years later by Eric Clapton.

He later wrote "Every Beat of My Heart," which was a hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips.

But the influence of Otis was felt most through his ability to recognize and promote talent. He wove into his bands such diverse and legendary R&B vocalists as Etta James, Hank Ballard, Big Mama Thornton, Little Esther Phillips and The Robins, the latter a group that would evolve into the Coasters.

He produced Thornton's original recording of "Hound Dog," later covered and carried to everlasting fame by Elvis Presley.

Otis saw himself as curator of black popular music, which for him represented much more than a diversion or livelihood. His cross-country R&B reviews and his radio and television appearances were dedicated to delivering black music to white audiences.

In later years he toured with his sons Shuggie and Nicky. Shuggie Otis became a noted musician in his own right, with "Strawberry Letter 23" his biggest hit.

Johnny Otis' eclectic interests also included politics, art and organic food.

In addition to his sons, Otis is survived by his wife, Phyllis, whom he married in 1941; daughters Janet and Laura, and several grandchildren.

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