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EMBCA Discussion on Greek-American Godfather of Rhythm & Blues Johnny Otis

January 10, 2022

NEW YORK – The East Mediterranean Business Culture Alliance (EMBCA) presented the 100th Anniversary of the Godfather of Rhythm and Blues (R&B): Johnny Otis/ Ioannis A. Veliotes panel discussion via Zoom on January 9. The event celebrated the life, times, and works of an iconic figure in the musical world, Rock and Hall of Famer (inducted 1994) Johnny Otis on the 100th anniversary of his birth (December 28, 1921), and the 10th anniversary of his passing (January 17, 2012).

The panel was moderated by Lou Katsos, EMBCAs President and AHEPA National Hellenic Cultural Commission Chairman. The distinguished panel included author, historian, activist Herb Boyd, Professor of the Black Studies Program at the City College of New York (CUNY); author/poet Nicholas Alexiou, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Hellenic American Project at Queens College; filmmaker Tassos Rigopoulos, Assistant Professor in the Media Arts and Technology Department at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (CUNY) and filmmaker Nicholas Panoutsopoulos. Katsos pointed out that producer Voza Rivers was also scheduled to participate in the panel, but unfortunately had to cancel.

Katsos gave the introduction, noting that Johnny Otis, born Ioannis Alexandros Veliotes in Vallejo, CA, the son of Greek immigrants, “was an iconoclastic figure who wore a number of different musical hats as well as contrasting ones over a career spanning more than half a century.”

Otis grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Berkeley, California, where his father owned a grocery store. “He was an American singer, musician, composer, arranger, bandleader, talent scout, disc jockey, record producer, television show host, artist, author, journalist, minister, and impresario,” Katsos said. “He had a seminal influence on American R&B and Rock and Roll. He discovered numerous artists early in their careers who went on to become highly successful in their own right, including Little Esther Phillips, Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, Johnny Ace, Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, and The Robins (who eventually changed their name to The Coasters), Sugar Pie DeSanto, among many others. He produced and played on Johnny Ace’s Pledging My Love, and produced some of Little Richard’s earliest recordings.”

“One of the many highlights of his long career was when he performed as a drummer with the great Count Basie Orchestra,” Katsos said. “Otis had a profound impact on music and helped guide the industry from jazz to rhythm and blues and rock and roll. Eventually he came to be known as the ‘Godfather of Rhythm and Blues.’”

“The Greek-American musician never lied about his actual roots, yet he was so widely seen as a Black American that one night in 1960, racists burned a cross on his lawn,” Katsos noted. He also mentioned in these difficult times, missing Dan Georgakas, author, activist, and TNH contributor, who passed away in November, and would have undoubtedly offered his insights at the event as he did in previous discussions. An event in Georgakas’ honor is being planned.

The fascinating discussion on the life of Otis, highlighted his career and his devotion to the Black community, how he broke musical and cultural barriers at the center of the creation of Rhythm & Blues and Rock & Roll while proudly supporting the struggle against racial injustice. Katsos noted that Otis also ran for political office, but lost because he had used his Greek name which no one recognized.

Prof. Alexiou gave the first presentation, offering background information on the Greeks in America in the early part of the 20th century, and biographical information, including how Otis at 19, in 1941, married Phyllis Walker, an 18-year-old woman of African-American and Filipino descent from Oakland. The couple eloped in Reno, NV, where interracial marriages were accepted at the time. They had four children, including two sons who followed their father’s footsteps as musicians. His son Shuggie’s two sons are also musicians.

Prof. Boyd then noted the connection between the Black and the Greek-American community, speaking about the late Dan Georgakas whom he knew from Detroit and later rediscovered at Wayne State University, and who, like Otis identified with the Black community, though not in the same way as Otis, and was also actively involved in the struggle of the community. Boyd noted that when he heard of Georgakas’ passing, they had just been working on editing the new edition of American Left, and having had many discussions with Georgakas, he will be missed in so many ways.

Boyd first heard Otis before he knew who he was, performing on a Johnny Ace record in his mother’s collection in the 1950s.

Filmmaker Tassos Rigopoulos noted that Otis was a painter as well, and one of his paintings was Rigopoulos’ virtual background. He showed clips of Otis from his eponymous TV show, among other footage, as well as a clip from his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with Etta James introducing him.

Filmmaker Nicholas Panoutsopoulos, joining the discussion from Athens and suffering from COVID, spoke about the effort to make a documentary film about Otis which began exactly 10 years ago. Unfortunately, Otis passed away a short time after he had agreed to participate in the film, but only in an audio interview. Panoutsopoulos pointed out that while Otis had dropped out of high school to pursue his career in music, his younger brother had attended the University of California at Berkeley and eventually became a diplomat and Ambassador to Egypt. He wondered what the Veliotes family’s reaction had been after Otis achieved so much success. Panoutsopoulos also noted that there is unedited footage of Dan Georgakas speaking about Otis. The difficulty of funding a documentary was also noted.

Rigopoulos showed a video compilation of images of Otis’ paintings set to his music to conclude the presentation as everyone looked forward to honoring Dan Georgakas at a future event.

Video is available on YouTube: https://youtu.be/mt1rjVwqQAc.

More information is also available online: https://embca.com.

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