Johnny Otis at the Powerhouse

“Despite the song’s references to dancing, and despite the demonstrations of the dance during performances, would-be censors believed that the song glorified masturbation.”

The Powerhouse Brewery in Sebastopol California – so named because the building was originally a power-generation plant — had a succinct code of conduct posted on its wall: “Be nice or leave.” The Powerhouse had a ten-year run beginning in 1994. Along with good beer and food, it was also a fine live-music venue. (It was sold in 2004 and became the HopMonk Tavern. HopMonk has since expanded to four locations.)

Johnny Otis for a while broadcast a Sunday-brunch radio show from the Powerhouse. A live audience ate and imbibed while he acted as disc jockey, telling stories about the music he was playing. He retired from this final gig with the closing of the Powerhouse and perhaps his failing health.

Otis, née Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes, of Greek heritage, grew up black in an African-American neighborhood of Berkeley. His professional career in music began in the mid-1940s, playing drums in an Oakland-based band. He re-located to Los Angeles where in addition to backing other artists, he put together his own orchestra and soon opened his own club in Watts.

Otis was also a legendary discoverer of talent. He brought to the world’s attention Big Mama Thornton (and played drums on her seminal recording of “Hound Dog”), Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, The Robins – who later became The Coasters – , Little Willie John, Hank Ballard and perhaps most famously, Etta James. He had many top-10 hits on the R&B charts, wrote hit songs made famous by others (“Every Beat of My Heart”, “Pledging My Love”), formed his own record label, D.J.’d a radio show in Long Beach, and fronted his band, The Johnny Otis Show.

The story goes that his biggest hit was inspired while touring England where teenage audiences were not allowed to get out of their seats and so “danced” with their hands. “Willie and the Hand Jive” with its Bo Diddley “shave and a haircut” beat hit number nine on Billboard’s Pop and number one on its R&B charts. The song has been covered countless times.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Johnny Otis in 1994. He died at age ninety in 2012.

Otis’s son Shuggie has had a long career as guitarist, singer and producer.

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