Willie and the Hand Jive, by the Late Great Johnny Otis

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.

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