Johnny Otis! Johnny Otis!

Many old timers remember the Johnny Otis Show back in the mid to late 1950s. The show opened with the Johnny Otis Band rolling drum sounds and the MC would sing: “Johnny Otis! Johnny Otis!”

On his show, Otis showcased and paved the way for many talented Black Jazz, R&B singers, including the unforgettable BoDiddley.


Otis was born in Vallejo, California, to Greek immigrant parents, Alexander J. Veliotes, a Mare Island longshoreman and grocery store owner, and his wife, the former Irene Kiskakes, a painter. He had a younger sister, Dorothy, and a younger brother, Nicholas A. Veliotes, who became the U.S. Ambassador to Jordan(1978–1981) and Egypt (1984–1986). Johnny grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Berkeley, California, where his father owned a grocery store. He became known for his choice to live his professional and personal life as a member of the African-American community. He wrote, “As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black.”

On May 2, 1941, when Otis was 19, he married Phyllis Walker, an 18-year old woman of African American and Filipino descent from Oakland, whom he had known since childhood. Despite deep and enduring objections from his mother, the young couple left California and eloped in Reno, Nevada, where interracial marriage was accepted at the time. They had four children: Shuggie Otis and Nicholas Otis, both of whom became musicians, and two daughters, Janice and Laura. Johnny and Phyllis also raised Lucky Otis, Shuggie’s son with his first wife, Miss Mercy Fontenot of The GTOs.

Johnny Otis (born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes; December 28, 1921 – January 17, 2012) was an American singer, musician, composer, arranger, bandleader, talent scout, disc jockey, record producer, television show host, artist, author, journalist, minister, and impresario.

He was a seminal influence on American R&B and rock and roll. He discovered numerous artists early in their careers who went on to become highly successful in their own right, including Little Esther Phillips, Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, Johnny Ace, Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, Hank Ballard, and The Robins(who eventually changed their name to The Coasters), among many others. Otis has become widely synonymous with being known as the original “King of Rock and Roll”[citation needed] and the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues”.

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