Johnny Otis was involved in virtually every aspect of the music business: he was a singer, musician, composer, producer, record company owner, arranger and talent scout, among others. He helped to shape the R&B genre starting in the late 1940s and stayed involved in it for over 30 years.

Otis was white, but grew up in a black neighborhood in northern California's Bay Area. He began his music career as a drummer in a swing band and by 1945 he had his own band. He could see that swing music was on its way out and downsized his band and got away from swing music and more towards R&B. It soon became one of the most popular R&B bands in the US. He traveled the country with his Johnny Otis Rhythem & Blues Caravan with many early rock and R&B singers.

In 1954 he became a disc jockey and formed Dig Records. He also got his own variety show, The Johnny Otis Show (1954), on TV station KTLA in Los Angeles. He discovered Etta James and Little Esther Phillips, and with James he wrote "Roll With Me, Henry", which she recorded. It shot to #1 on the R&B charts and made her a star.

He continued performing and recording well into the 1980s, and traveled the US and Europe performing at jazz and blues festivals.