RIP Johnny Otis
January 19, 2012 12:16 AM   Subscribe

Chances are that sometime, somewhere, out of the corner of one ear, at least, you've heard the iconic (yet all-but-forgotten) "Willie and the Hand Jive". Set to a Bo Diddley beat, it was an infectious little number that made quite a splash back in its day. Here's a fun live version of the bouncy tune, complete with the three largest dancing girls you're ever likely to see, and here's the original 1958 recording. The composer of the tune, the son of Greek immigrants who decided that the world of black music was where he wanted to be, was one Johnny Otis, who has just died at the grand old age of 90. Shortly after its release, "Willie and the Hand Jive" was covered by early rock icons like Bo Diddley and, across the pond in England, Cliff Richard. But apart from his most famous tune, Johnny did a LOT of recording and performing throughout his lengthy career, so there's...

Here's some other Johnny Otis stuff, but only a fraction of what's out there...

Harlem Nocturne (from Johnny's jazz years - this is from 1945)
Crazy Country Hop (another number featuring the Bo Diddley beat - fun stuff from 1958)
Rock Me Baby (doo wop/jump blues ditty - 19??)
Signifying Monkey (from 1968 - fun! - and features plenty of cursing!)
Barrelhouse Blues (instrumental - 19??)
Low Down Dirty Dog Blues (another instrumental, nothing earth-shattering, but the video features a ton of Johnny Otis photos, record jackets and show posters, worth a view)
TV appearance with guitarist Roy Buchanan and son Shuggie Otis (1970s)

And speaking of Johnny's son Shuggie Otis, hey, he deserves a post of his own.

Rest in peace, Johnny Otis.
posted by flapjax at midnite (42 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Chances are that sometime, somewhere, out of the corner of one ear, at least, you've heard the iconic (yet all-but-forgotten) "Willie and the Hand Jive".

Forgotten? Is it that long since Clapton had a huge hit with his loathesome cover?

Ah. 1974. Apparently it *is* that long. Oh well, that album is best forgotten anyway.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:27 AM on January 19, 2012

You'll note, Peter, that I didn't link to the Clapton cover. That wasn't an oversight. I have a firm policy of not linking to Eric Clapton.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:30 AM on January 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

I want candy!
posted by thetruthisjustalie at 12:35 AM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

But let's get that awful Crapton (as his name is sometimes misspelled here in Japan) taste out of our mouths, shall we, with this tasty little chunk of 70s funk written and produced by Johnny Otis: The Watts Breakaway.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:36 AM on January 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Damn, I was just about to post The Watts Breakaway as my favourite Johnny Otis track.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:37 AM on January 19, 2012

Your ears have corners? Square, daddy-o.
posted by pracowity at 12:38 AM on January 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

"Out of the corner of one ear", is right. As soon as I listened to one of the linked versions of Hand Jive I immediately knew I had heard the song before. It seemed just off from my memory so of course I began trying to find which of the many covers that matched my memory. The search proved fruitless but I was pleasantly surprised to find that The Grateful Dead had done a nice live cover at one point.

The song is infectious. Rest in Peace, you creator of such a nice ear worm.
posted by sendai sleep master at 12:38 AM on January 19, 2012

Your ears have corners?

Hey, if you can see something from the corner of your eye, surely you can hear something from the corner of your ear, pracowity.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:40 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by carping demon at 12:42 AM on January 19, 2012

posted by lapolla at 12:44 AM on January 19, 2012

I had certainly not forgotten that song, as The Whelk knows.
posted by Decani at 1:21 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

What a shiny suit in the fist video! Aww, I loved that old hand jive song. Loved to see those Big Mamas doing that hand jive thang too.

"Godfather of Rhythm and Blues"?! Dang, that's some title!

From his Wikipedia entry: Otis was well-known for his choice to live his professional and personal life as a member of the African-American community. He has written, "As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black."

That is an amazing decision.

He had a good run, 90. Wishing him happy cosmic resonance.
posted by nickyskye at 1:42 AM on January 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here's a nice write-up on Johnny Otis at TheHoundogBlog from 2008. Unfortunately most of the music links are broken, but it's still a good post, and this is important: the blog owner says "Somewhere I have a funny tape of Frank Zappa as guest DJ, spinning classic R&B discs while Johnny tells personal antidotes about each artist. Unfortunately I don't think I have a working cassette deck in the house, but if I get one I'll try and post it."

I don't think s/he ever got around to it, but maybe they'll be reminded of it. I'd love to hear that.
posted by taz at 1:44 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Shuggie is his kid? Huh. I've been hearing "Strawberry Letter #23" all morning like a ghost in my head, though I'm hearing the Brothers Johnson version.
posted by pracowity at 2:11 AM on January 19, 2012

Like a lot of people I was first exposed to Johnny Otis via the amazing track 'Country Girl' on a David Holmes mixtape (the same mixtape that helped bring Sixto Rodriguez back into circulation).

Getting hold of that led me to Johnny's album recorded as Snatch and the Poontangs, complete with R. Crumb style cover, which is worth checking out too if you don't mind him being a bit, you might say, ribald.
posted by Mocata at 2:25 AM on January 19, 2012

Everybody should own a copy of Inspiration Information – a stone cold classic.
posted by niceness at 3:53 AM on January 19, 2012

If you didn't already know, the hand jive is a dance that resembles a highly elaborate version of Pat-a-cake.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:07 AM on January 19, 2012

Sorry. A highly elaborate version of Pat-a-cake
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:09 AM on January 19, 2012

posted by Mister Bijou at 4:34 AM on January 19, 2012

I was just reading a bio of him. Quite a guy.

posted by jonmc at 4:50 AM on January 19, 2012

"Willie and the Hand Jive" and "Strawberry Letter 23"--man, talk about two completely dissimilar songs, but they're both perennial earworms that I don't mind being earworms. And I love that live video; the big lady in the front seems to be having an especially good time.

posted by Halloween Jack at 5:13 AM on January 19, 2012

As someone who previously only knew the Eric Clapton version as a song it was worth fast-forwaridng through on a Eric Clapton Greatest Hits cassette, I found original to be refreshingly non-terrible.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:04 AM on January 19, 2012

posted by wheelieman at 7:31 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

has Eric Clapton ever recorded a non-loathsome cover? His version of "I Shot the Sherriff" was felonious.
posted by entropone at 7:44 AM on January 19, 2012

Excellent post, as usual. Here Comes Shuggie Otis has been in my rotation for 30+ years, BTW.

posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:51 AM on January 19, 2012

Is it possible that a 'hand jive' in it's original form had no subtext whatsoever? Seems impossible.
posted by Phreesh at 7:56 AM on January 19, 2012

Never heard of this guy until now. Went to the YouTube to hear a few songs.


Thanks, flapjax. Tonight, the iPod, she grows by a few more songs. WOO!
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 8:03 AM on January 19, 2012

Who knew that Johnny had a parallel career in a band withe the best name of any band ever in the history of awesome band names?

Snatch and the Poontangs
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:34 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Snatch and the Poontangs repurpose that old Willie and the Hand Job lick.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:41 AM on January 19, 2012

Johnny Otis hosted a blues show on KPFA in San Francisco for many years. He introduced many people (including me) to West Coast R&B. What a great life he lived.
Here's Johnny and his son Shuggie with Frank Zappa around 1970 playing some blues.
posted by wellvis at 9:12 AM on January 19, 2012

Oh and those three big girls? Three Tons of Joy.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:13 AM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Not sure how this fits in, but today is Janis Joplin's birthday as well as Owsley's.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:43 AM on January 19, 2012

I am sorry to hear that Johnny Otis has died. He was one of the last of a generation of black big band leaders. There is, I believe, a CD reissue of The Johnny Otis Rhythm & Blues Caravan: The Complete Savoy Recordings still available.

On a sidenote, Hambone by Red Saunders & the Hambone Kids was , if I recall correctly, the first recording of the hambone beat aka the Bob Diddley beat. Which derives from Patting Juba, which goes back to and before blackface minstrelsy -- see here also.
posted by y2karl at 10:16 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

He has written, "As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black."

Johnny Otis was one of the few, if not only, white men who both identified himself and was recognized by his peers in the jazz and rhythm'n blues community as black. This was not a case of cultural appropriation so much as a case of cultural contribution. A great contribution.
posted by y2karl at 10:23 AM on January 19, 2012

And I should have written the above song as, no slight to Ms. Hawkins intended, Red Saunders & His Orchestra with Delores Hawkins & The Hambone Kids.
posted by y2karl at 10:30 AM on January 19, 2012

Great links. Thanks everyone.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:21 PM on January 19, 2012


And thanks for the links.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:12 PM on January 19, 2012

A few other Johnny Otis related hits that came to mind today:

Let it be noted that in 1955, Johnny Otis produced and, with the Johnny Otis Band , played on both sides of Peacock 1658: Little Richard Boogie and Directly from My Heart to You, both of which are among my favorite sides by Mr. Penniman, and, also, he produced and drummed on Big Mama Thornton's rather famously covered Hound Dog. By the way, that's Mickey Baker, of Mickey and Sylvia's Love Is Strange fame playing that epitome of lowdown and funky gutbucket guitar.

And, from among other mp3s on Here Is Old Time Jazz On Line, this came to mind today: Johnny Otis & His Orchestra - Stardust. I found that to be a very nuanced, moody and rather against the grain take on that standard. But then that can be said for his first big hit in Harlem Nocturne, linked above by flapjax, as well. In an age of honkers and shouters, in the early days, Johnny Otis and His Orchestra had a distinctly subtle and textured sound.
posted by y2karl at 3:00 AM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was reminded by another member of this post from 2002, regarding still living bluesmen from the first, second and third generations --Robert Jr. Lockwood, David Honeyboy Edwards, Henry Townsend, Johnny Otis and Ike Turner -- and why the thinking person owed it to him or herself to go see them. Of all those listed, now only Ike Turner is left.

Ike Turner's is, of course, a name which will live in infamy thanks to his domestically violent ways as detailed in his former wife's biography in book and film. Yet he deserves some fame as well for his place in music history. For instance, when, at the age of 17, he was produced (and played piano on) Howling Wolf's How Many More Years, not to mention the leading perennial candidate for first rock'n roll song ever, Jackie Brenston's Rocket 88, among, as the link above shows, any number of historic songs by historic singers on which he played either piano or guitar:

And now, he stands alone.
posted by y2karl at 10:21 AM on January 20, 2012

That HoundBlog write-up taz posted mentions a key to what made Johnny Otis such an essential part of rock, blues and soul history - he was an amazing talent scout. It may be fitting that Etta James died this week, too, because it was Johnny Otis who discovered her when she was barely a teenager, along with the amazing Little Esther, Hank Ballard, Jackie Wilson and a ton of other brilliant R&B stars (including Big Mama Thornton, as y2karl mentioned).

He had an amazing career, spanning the development of every style of soul music; if you like "Watts Breakaway" there's more great stuff from that 70s period on the Watts Funky comp of Johnny Otis-related gems, including Vera Hamilton's great, great "But I Ain't No More" and the Vibrettes' sly, slippery "Humpty Dump."

The scatalogical hilarity of Snatch and the Poontangs is just icing on the cake.

RIP, Johnny Otis. You're one of the great heroes of rock and roll, on so many levels.
posted by mediareport at 10:41 PM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oops, here's that Vera Hamilton cut. Awesome deep, sexy, funky soul.
posted by mediareport at 10:43 PM on January 20, 2012

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