BLUESMAN

Former Sebastopol resident and R&B pioneer Johnny Otis died at his home in Los Angeles at the age of 90. Otis penned the R&B classic “Willie and the Hand Jive."

Old friends and Sebastopol neighbors this week continued to share memories of rhythm and blues music pioneer Johnny Otis, who lived here from 1989 until four years ago.

Otis died last week (Jan. 17) in Los Angeles where he had been living with his wife Phylis and other close family members, suffering from very poor health over recent years.

Several of Otis' family members, including his sons Shuggie and Nicky, still live in Sonoma County.

Former Bloomfield Road neighbor George Curtis visited Otis in Los Angeles earlier this month and shared dinner, just days before Otis was moved to the hospital where he died.

"Johnny was absolutely magnanimous," said Curtis, who worked with Otis on his weekly live radio show on KPFA. "We'd go many places in public and Johnny never blew anyone off. He always stopped to talk.

"If I could use one word to describe Johnny I'd say ‘accomplished.'"

Otis' longtime manager and close friend Terry Gould returned home to Graton this week after assisting with the family's affairs in Los Angeles. Gould remembered the first time he met Otis at his small deli in Sebastopol.

"I went in to sell him ice cream and we just hit it off right away and became the best of friends. Through all the years I knew and worked with Johnny I received a very magical education."

Born in Vallejo on Dec. 28, 1921 to Greek immigrant parents, Otis adopted the black culture that surrounded him and blazed a trail in early R&B music, cashing into the big time with a national hit in 1958, "Willie and the Hand Jive."

Otis moved to an apple ranch in rural Sebastopol in 1989, where he raised birds and grew organic apples. He and Curtis shared raising birds together and became fishing buddies.

"I knew just enough about music to keep his interest and because I was mechanical I started helping with his sound board at his radio show.

Otis converted an old goat barn at his ranch into a recording studio, complete with a 10-foot long, 64-track analog sound board.

At first, Curtis drove Otis to the Berkeley studios of KPFA before they moved the show to Copperfield's Books in Sebastopol.

When Johnny opened his Johnny Otis Market & Deli, they started broadcasting from that location before eventually moving to the Powerhouse Brewery, now the location of Hop Monk. He retired his radio show in 2005 due to failing health.

A special Johnny Otis tribute will be aired this Saturday (Jan. 28) on KPFA (94.1 FM) by Curtis and Tom Mazzolini from noon to 2 p.m. (It will streaming live at www.kpfa.org.)

Otis and his sons Shuggie and Nicky began playing weekend shows at the small deli on Healdsburg Avenue to sold-out crowds. Otis, Curtis and fishing buddy Cam Perry would often catch bluegills and bass on Fridays and Johnny would serve up a cornmeal and fish fry dinner at his Saturday concerts.

Later, Otis began a series of New Year's Eve shows at the Flamingo Hotel and Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa. For the final few years, Otis and manager Gould moved the New Year's Eve show to the Sebastopol Community Center.

For a few years, Otis headlined his own "Red Beans & Rice Festival" on the grounds of the Luther Burbank Center.

Otis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and he continued to play R&B, jazz and other music with his big band and other ensembles that often included his sons and grandson.

In his early musical career, mostly based in the Los Angeles area, Otis was credited with discovering such future R&B stars as Etta James, Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Little Esther Phillips.

Otis was also a prolific painter and artist and many of his works hang in many Sonoma County homes.

Otis was very active in politics and at one time converted his southern California residence into the Landmark Church, complete with a choir often led by Esther Phillips.

Along with his manager Gould, the two men re-mastered as much of his musical recordings as possible in recent years.

This week, San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joel Selvin called Otis a "rhythm and blues renaissance man.

"At heart, what made Otis a renaissance man was an insatiable appetite for life. His fascinations were many, his life, long and rich, and his accomplishments in a class by themselves," Selvin wrote in his tribute.

Otis' written music, recordings and radio broadcast transcripts have been collected in several university-based rhythm and blues collections, notably the University of Minnesota and University of Indiana.

The renaissance man also was known as an accomplished painter, author and cook. He published several books throughout his life, including collections of cartoons, paintings and favorite recipes.

In the mid-1990s, his cartoons were published in The Sebastopol Times & News.

"I remember in the summer of 2000 that Johnny wanted to take up watercolors," said Curtis. "Within a week he had become a master. He was a tremendous artist."

Gould remembered some of the New Year's Eve lineups that included musicians such as Jackie Payne, Gail Muldrew, Brad Pie, Danny Armstrong, Larry Douglas, George Spencer, Larry James and others."

"We used to talk on the phone every night - sometimes for over an hour," said Gould. "I started out as an ex-musician who once owned one of his records to becoming best friends for 20 years."

Through the 1950s and decades beyond, Otis blazed new musical trails wherever he went.

In 1970, Otis played at the Monterey Jazz Festival, leading a stage full of R&B masters that included Esther Phillips, Jimmy Rushing, Pee Wee Crayton, Roy Brown, Ivory Joe Hunter, Big Joe Turner, Roy Milton and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson.

"It was one of the greatest musical performances I ever attended," SF Chronicle's Selvin remembered this week.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.