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Johnny Otis of 'Willie and the Hand Jive' dies

January 19, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Johnny Otis, who wrote the R&B classic "Willie and the Hand Jive" has died. He was 90.

Otis, who had been suffering from health issues for several years, died at his Altadena home on Tuesday, said his manager, Terry Gould.

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

His musical tastes clearly reflected that adopted culture, and for decades, he evangelized black music to white audiences as a bandleader and radio host.

Otis was leading his own band in 1945 when he scored his first big hit, "Harlem Nocturne." Ten of his songs made Billboard Magazine's R&B chart in 1950. His hit "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. He also produced Big Mama Thornton's recording of "Hound Dog," a song that would later become an even bigger hit for Elvis Presley.

While he always returned to playing music, Otis also worked for years as deputy chief of staff to state Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally when Dymally served in the Assembly, state Senate, as lieutenant governor and as a congressman.

In later years, Otis spent much of his time painting and sculpting. He also opened an organic grocery store in Sebastopol in the early 1990s to sell his son Nicky's vegetables, decorating the store with his own colorful murals.

Otis also had a regular show playing records on the nonprofit Pacifica Radio Network's stations until failing health prompted him to retire in 2005.

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

The Associated Press contributed to this report.