Born white, the son of Greek immigrant parents, and raised in a predominantly black neighborhood in Northern California in the 1920s, Otis decided as a youth that he'd rather be black.
FOR THE RECORD:
Johnny Otis: The obituary of pioneering R&B musician, producer and disc jockey Johnny Otis in the Jan. 19 LATExtra section said that Otis first came to Los Angeles to join Harlan Leonard's Kansas City Rockers. The group's name was the Kansas City Rockets. The obituary also said that Otis and his wife, Phyllis, had been married for 60 years. They were married for 70 years. —
The choice put him on a path to a life in music during which he created the sensually pulsing 1958 hit "Willie and the Hand Jive." It also gave him a deep connection to black culture that helped him discover such future stars of R&B and rock as Etta James, Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Little Esther Phillips.
"Yes, I chose," Otis told The Times in 1979, "because despite all the hardships, there's a wonderful richness in black culture that I prefer."
Otis died Tuesday in the Los Angeles area, where he had lived for much of his life, said Tom Reed, a black-music historian. He was 90.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, Otis continued leading a big band R&B, jazz, soul, gospel and roots-rock revue in recent years, literally and figuratively beating the drum for the music that fired his imagination.
"I get a wave of pride in America when I look back at what we've accomplished in the field of music," Otis told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. "People are going to wake up to this great reservoir of music we've created in America — cakewalks, one-steps, boogie-woogie, country and western. I had a bit to do with one of those traditions."
"I'm not suggesting our music is the only music," he told The Times in 1986 when the once-endangered musical style he helped create was staging a comeback, "but I am suggesting that there are certain elements in America's culture that are so precious that it would be a shame for them to go down the drain."
He was born John Veliotes on Dec. 28, 1921, in Vallejo, northeast of San Francisco, and was raised in Berkeley, where his father ran a grocery store in a largely black community.
"When I got near teen age, I was so happy with my friends and the African American culture that I couldn't imagine not being part of it," Otis told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1991.
He started playing drums with big bands and jazz combos, and in his early 20s came to L.A. to join Harlan Leonard's Kansas City Rockers, the house band at Club Alabam on the thriving Central Avenue jazz-blues-R&B club scene.
"Man, you could go into one club and there'd be [jazz saxophone giant] Lester Young jamming, go into another and you'd find T Bone [Walker, the Texas blues guitarist and singer], and down the street Miles [Davis] would be blowing," Otis said in 1979. "Yeah, L.A. was happening."
But tough times in the late 1940s forced bandleaders to pare their large ensembles back to a small handful of players — the perfect size, as it turned out, for the new styles of R&B and rock 'n' roll that were emerging.
"To compensate for all the instruments we were eliminating, we had to put in some new ones, each with a fuller sound: an electric guitar, a blues guitar, a boogie piano," Otis told The Times in 1984, and "the sound changed too, into more of a cross between swing and country blues.... We ended up creating a whole new art form: a hybrid music that became known as rhythm and blues."
Otis scored a signature hit of that nascent style in 1946 with the moody, saxophone-driven instrumental "Harlem Nocturne," which was revived in 1960 by the white New Jersey rock group the Viscounts.
At one point, Otis was asked to judge a talent competition in Detroit and selected three winners: Wilson, Ballard and Little Willie John. Otis' talent, he once said, was being able to "see something before anyone else."
He wrote the song that became James' first charting hit — vaulting her to No. 1 on the R&B chart in 1955 — with "The Wallflower," popularly known as "Roll With Me Henry." It was a female-centric response to Ballard's sexually charged hit "Work With Me Annie" that raised eyebrows for its frankness.