With the passing of rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Johnny Otis, who died last week at the age of 90, America lost a musical creator and curator who, in his own way, did as much as Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry to shape the soundtrack of the modern world. This San Francisco Chronicle appreciation story makes that clear:
He discovered Little Richard and songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. He produced their song “Hound Dog” with Big Mama Thornton when Elvis Presley was still at Humes High. He met 14-year-old Etta James backstage at a concert at the long-gone Primalon Ballroom on Fillmore Street and, that very night, whisked her to Los Angeles to make her first record the next day.
Otis’ musical contributions were rich and varied, and his 1994 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was greatly deserved. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Otis was the brave way he lived his life, and what it says about the endless possibilities in America for self-invention and self-expression — even at a time when racism and segregation obscured those opportunities for too many in the USA.
Here’s something a lot of people didn’t know: Johnny Otis was not a black man. He was the child of Greek immigrants, and his real name was Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes. He grew up in a largely black neighborhood in Berkeley, Calif., where he developed his love and affinity for African-American culture.
But Otis didn’t just immerse himself in the all-American culture of black people in this country — he consciously reinvented himself as “black” (or “black by persuasion,” as he called it). His remarkable musical dexterity flowed from that deep well of cultural understanding and allowed him to communicate with all Americans in the national language of the blues, which Ralph Ellison described as “an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstances.”
In the wake of his death, some have framed Otis’ life as an expression of “anti-racism.” It’s true that he arrived at a deeply segregated time in our history, and the arc of his life proves that racial categories are meaningless. It’s also true that the rock ‘n’ roll music he pioneered has done more on a human level to shatter those rigid categories than any legislation could. But anti-racism is too simple an evaluation of his importance.
At his core, Otis is an extravagant example of America’s near-limitless freedom to shape your life in any way you choose. Beyond that, he was also a potent symbol of the subtly multiracial society that Albert Murray revealed in The Omni-Americans:
“American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto. Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.”
Greek immigrant child Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes, who became black musical impresario Johnny Otis, helped point America back to its miscegenated heart. For that, we should all be thankful.