Johnny Otis in Detroit: Greatest talent show ever


Not many people pack as many careers into a life as Johnny Otis, who died earlier this week at the age of 90 in his home state of California. Author, disc jockey, talent scout, legislative staffer, night club operator, band leader, songwriter, record label chief, ordained minister

and “godfather of rhythm and blues.”

The obits, like this one in The New York Times, hit the high points, including producing Big Mama Thornton’s pre-Elvis Presley hit version of “Hound Dog,” playing on seminal hits by Johnny Ace and Charles Brown, hitting the charts himself with the original “Willie and the Hand Jive,” fathering recording artist Shuggie Otis.

As a talent scout, his discoveries include the aforementioned Thornton, Big Jay McNeeley and Esther Phillips, not to mention three Detroit stars-to-be discovered in a single talent show held at the Paradise Theatre, now part of the Max M. Fisher Music Center on Woodward.

As he recounted the tale to R&B historian Arnold Shaw for the book Honkers and Shouters:

It was one of the “around the world” theaters, as we called black vaudeville theaters in those days: the Apollo, the Howard, the Regal, the Royal. I prevailed upon the managers to let me have a talent show, which I tried to do wherever I went, always hoping to find some young, meaningful, aspiring talent. The manager was very cooperative. A one-hour show stretched into an hour-and-a-half of kids waiting. In later years, when I thought about what Berry Gordy did in Detroit, I was not surprised. For some reason, Detroit was loaded with talent; it just needed the vision and the creative power of Gordy to help it mature. A tremendous percentage of the young people heard at the Paradise was talented. Three of them made a strong impression. They were Little Willie John, Jackie Wilson and a group called the Royals.

Those up on their ’50s and ’60s music know that Jackie Wilson was a recording sensation, known as Mr. Excitement, who had hits all the way through 1969’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” Little Willie John went onto big hits like the original “Fever,” although he never crossed over from black audiences to whites; Peggy Lee covered “Fever” for the mainstream hit.

And the Royals

became the Midnighters and later Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, sort of the 2 Live Crew of their time with scandalous tunes (for the 1950s) like “Work with Me, Annie” and “Annie Had a Baby.” They also recorded a little thing called “The Twist,” although Chubby Checker hit the hit-disc jackpot on that one.

Through his heyday, Otis was widely thought to be African American, just like his core audience. It was a little more complicated.

“Genetically, I’m pure Greek,” was how he put it. “Psychologically, environmentally, culturally, by choice, I’m a member of the black community.”