Wing Wing

Club Alabam’s owner entreated Otis to assemble his own orchestra for house-band duties. The group’s 1945 debut sides for Excelsior were solidly in the big-band jazz vein and included an arrangement of the moody “Harlem Nocturne” that sold well. Shouter Jimmy Rushing fronted the band for two tracks at the same date. Otis’s rep as a drummer was growing; he backed both Wynonie Harris and Charles Brown (with Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers)
that same year.

His influence on L.A.’s R&B scene soared exponentially when he opened the Barrelhouse Club in Watts. R&B replaced jazz in Otis’ heart; he pared the big band down and discovered young talent such as the Robins (AKA The Coasters), vocalists Mel Walker and Little Esther Phillips.

Otis signed with Savoy Records in 1949, and the R&B hits came in droves:”Double Crossing Blues,” “Mistrustin’ Blues,” and “Cupid’s Boogie” all hit number one that year (in all, Otis scored ten Top Ten smashes that year alone!); “Gee Baby,” “Mambo Boogie,” and “All Nite Long” lit the lamp in 1951, and “Sunset to Dawn” capped his amazing run in 1952 (vocals were shared by Little Esther, Walker, and other members of the group). By then, Otis had branched out to play vibes on many waxings.

 A 1953-1955 contract with Don Robey’s Peacock logo produced some nice jump blues sides but no hits (though the Otis orchestra backed one of his many discoveries, Big Mama Thornton, on her chart-topping “Hound Dog,” as well as a young Little Richard while at Peacock). Otis was a masterful talent scout; among his platinum-edged discoveries were Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, Hank Ballard, and Etta James (he produced her debut smash Roll With Me Henry”).

In 1955, Otis took studio matters into his own hands, to showcase his own work as well as his latest discoveries (including Arthur Lee Maye & the Crowns, Tony Allen, and Mel Williams). Rock & roll was at its zenith in 1957, when billed as the Johnny Otis Show, he set the R&B and pop charts ablaze in 1958 with  “Willie and the Hand Jive,” taking the vocal himself (other singers then with the Otis Show included Mel Williams and the gargantuan Marie Adams & the Three Tons of Joy). During the late ’50s, Otis hosted his own variety program on L.A. television, starring his entire troupe.

He also moonlighted producing sessions for various members of his band and artists as diverse as Big Mama Thornton, Johnny Ace, Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson.