A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Monday, January 23, 2012

Do That Crazy Hand Jive!

Berkeley - and the world - lost a giant of rhythm and blues when Johnny Otis died on Jan. 17, just two weeks after his 91st birthday.
It would take 10 columns to list all his accomplishments. But here's a short list of some of the musical legends he discovered: Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, Big Mama Thornton, the Robins (who later became famous as the Coasters), Esther Phillips (whom he billed as "Little Esther") and the great Etta James, who, sadly, died three days after he did.
When he was inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, Etta called him "my guru."
Johnny produced and played drums on Big Mama Thornton's original (and still the best) version of "Hound Dog," wrote "Every Beat Of My Heart" for Gladys Knight and the Pips, and played several instruments on Charles Brown's classic "Driftin' Blues."
In 1958 he had a Top 10 hit of his own with "Willie And The Hand Jive," the saga of "a cat named Way-Out Willie" who had "a cool little chick named Rockin' Millie," sung to the distinctive "shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits" rhythm pioneered by Bo Diddley.
The son of Greek immigrants, Johnny was born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes on Dec. 28, 1921, and grew up in the largely African American section of Southwest Berkeley.
It didn't take long for young Ioannis to fall in love with everything about black culture, especially the music. And he made a conscious choice to live his life, both personally and professionally, as an African American.
He shortened his name to Johnny Otis and never looked back.
"Genetically, I'm pure Greek," he told the San Jose Mercury News in 1994. "Psychologically, environmentally, culturally, by choice, I'm a member of the black community."
Keep in mind that when Johnny was growing up, Berkeley was still rigidly segregated. If you were black, you didn't dare venture into certain sections of town after dark. Heck, Berkeley didn't desegregate its schools until 1968!
But though African Americans were geographically relegated to the flatlands, they had the peace of mind that comes with occupying the moral high ground. And Johnny found that very attractive.
Although he never stopped performing - often playing with his children and grandchildren - more and more of his energy was spent on issues of civil rights and social justice.
He served as chief of staff for Mervyn Dymally, California's first black Lieutenant Governor, and ran unsuccessfully for state senate. (He probably would have won if he hadn't insisted on listing his real name on the ballot instead of "Johnny Otis.")
In 1968 he wrote his first book, "Listen to the Lambs," about the Watts riots. In the 1970s he became an ordained minister and, although he joked about being "Reverend Hand Jive," he took his ministry seriously and devoted a lot of time to feeding and sheltering the homeless.
I had the honor of interviewing him once during the 1980s. We had lunch at Mel's Diner - his treat - and he couldn't have been nicer. He was a truly humble guy who took his music seriously, but not himself.
And he was the first to acknowledge that he wasn't even the most famous member of the Veliotes family. That distinction goes to his little brother, Nick - aka Ambassador Nicholas Veliotes, perhaps the most distinguished American diplomat of his generation.
Nick was Jimmy Carter's ambassador to Jordan and Ronald Reagan's ambassador to Egypt. In fact, wherever there was a hot spot, presidents of either party would send Nick there to cool things down. He had a knack for bringing people together.
Come to think of it, so did Johnny.