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Sonoma County musicians mourn Johnny Otis

To the world, Johhny Otis was the rhythm-and-blues music pioneer who wrote the classic 1958 hit, "Willie and the Hand Jive."

But to the people who knew Otis for the dozen years that he lived and worked in Sebastopol, starting in the early '90s, he was a friend, mentor and crusader for racial equality.

Otis, 90, had been in poor health for several years and died at home Tuesday in the Los Angeles suburb of Altadena, where he settled after he left Sebastopol.

"I certainly hate to see the world lose such an amazing character," said internationally known harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite of Geyserville, who first met Otis at a Los Angeles nightclub in the late '60s.

"I sat in with him lots of times," Musselwhite said. "He played all kinds of musical instruments - drums and vibes. He was a deejay, painter, author, songwriter, singer, talent scout."

Born John Veliotes, the son of Greek immigrants, he grew up in a black neighborhood in Berkeley, and bonded with black music, culture and social issues. He eventually changed his name to Johnny Otis, because it sounded more like an R&B artist.

"He was a Greek who declared himself black," Musselwhite said.

Otis was leading his own band in 1945 when he scored his first big hit, "Harlem Nocturne." In 1950, 10 of his songs made Billboard Magazine's R&B top-hit charts, and his "Willie and the Hand Jive" sold more than 1.5 million copies. The song was used in the movie "Grease" in 1978 and was covered by rock star Eric Clapton.

He was known for his discovery of major rhythm-and-blues talents, including Etta James and Hank Ballard. Otis produced singer Big Mama Thornton's original recording of "Hound Dog," later a hit for Elvis Presley.

"Johnny had respect for musicians, and they respected him," said Bill Bowker of Santa Rosa's KRSH ("Krush") Radio station.

Northern California slide guitarist Roy Rogers once refused to host a radio show because it would have run at the same time as Otis' series on another station, Bowker said. Otis had a regular show, playing recordings on Pacifica Radio Network's stations, until ill health forced him to retire in 2005.

The people of Sonoma County got to know Otis after he opened his Johnny Otis Market and Deli in 1993 to sell his brand of organic apple juice. He and his band performed there on weekend nights, drawing large crowds, until the store closed two years later.

"I'll always remember those high-energy nights in his little Sebastopol eats-joint-turned-hot-music-club," said Katherine Hastings, Sonoma County poet and KRCB Radio show host. "No one in their right minds could stay in their seats."

In 1997, Otis briefly opened his own Land Mark Community Church in Santa Rosa, which he had run in Los Angeles 20 years previous.

A mentor to musicians, Otis also extended his support and encouragement to creative people of all kinds.

"A kindly, big-hearted man, he was always supportive of others in the arts," said Forestville artist and writer Maureen Hurley.

During his years in Sebastopol, Otis recorded his own music and other musicians at his own studio on his ranch.

"Johnny always had a great band," said Santa Rosa recording engineer Jason Andrews, who worked with Otis for four years. "I had many nights' meals with the Otises. There was always great soul food and hot sauce on the table."

Otis's survivors include his wife Phyllis, whom he married in 1941; sons, Shuggie and Nicky; daughters, Janet and Laura; and several grandchildren.

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Dan Taylor

Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat

Do you take fun seriously? I know I do. Tell me what you want to know about arts and entertainment in the North Bay to make the best use of your leisure time and money. As a longtime local arts journalist, I have learned where to look and who to ask.

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