One of the catchiest grooves from the rhythm and blues of the late 1950s is “Willie and the Hand Jive,” by Johnny Otis. In this lively scene from his early TV show, Otis performs the song as Marie Adams and the Three Tons of Joy demonstrate the hand jive. Lionel Hampton joins in on the vibraphone.
Otis, known as “the godfather of rhythm and blues,” died Tuesday at the age of 90. The son of Greek immigrants, he grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood of Berkeley, California, and developed an early affinity for African American culture. “Genetically, I’m pure Greek,” Otis said in 1994. “Psychologically, environmentally, culturally, by choice, I’m a member of the black community.”
As a bandleader in the 1950s, Otis helped bring rhythm and blues to a mainstream audience. He discovered a number of important artists, including Big Mama Thornton (Otis produced her original 1952 recording of “Hound Dog”) and the great Etta James, who died this morning.
“Willie and the Hand Jive,” with its infectious Bo Diddley beat, was a top 10 pop hit for Otis in 1958, and was covered by a variety of well-known artists, including Eric Clapton. Otis continued to perform into his 80s, and worked at various times as a disc jockey, an ordained minister and an organic farmer. You can read more about his remarkable life in the New York Times obituary.
You can also watch the complete half-hour episode of The Johnny Otis Show (below) from which the clip above was taken. The Johnny Otis Show was broadcast on KTLA in Los Angeles from 1954 to 1961. This episode features great performances by Lionel Hampton (with the multi-instrumentalist Otis joining in on drums) and other artists, including more from Marie Adams and the Three Tons of Joy.