"Willie and the Hand Jive" is a song written by Johnny Otis and originally released as a single in 1958 by Johnny Otis Show, reaching #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and #5 on the Billboard R&B chart. The song has a Bo Diddley beat and was partly inspired by the music sung by a chain gang Otis heard while he was touring. The lyrics are about a man who became famous for doing a dance with his hands, but the song has been accused of glorifying masturbation. It has since been covered by numerous artists, including The Strangeloves, Eric Clapton, Cliff Richard, Johnny Rivers, George Thorogood and The Grateful Dead. Clapton's 1974 version was also released as a single and also reached the Billboard Top 40, peaking at #26. Thorogood's 1985 version reached #25 on the Hot Mainstream Rock Trackschart.
The Johnny Otis Show original version of the song has an infectious Bo Diddley beat. Johnny Otis biographer George Lipsitz describes Jimmy Nolen's guitar riff on the song as "unforgettable". The music was based on a song Otis had heard a chain gang singing while touring, combined with work Otis did as a teenager when he was performing with Count Otis Matthews and the West Oakland House Stompers.
The lyrics tell of a man named Willie who became famous for doing a hand jive dance. In a sense, the story is similar to that of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode", which tells of someone who became famous for playing the guitar and was released two months before "Willie and the Hand Jive". The origin of the song came when one of Otis' managers, Hal Zeiger, found out that rock'n'roll concert venues in England did not permit the teenagers to stand up and dance in the aisles, so they instead danced with their hands while remaining in their seats. At Otis' concerts, performers would demonstrate Willie's "hand jive" dance to the audience, so the audience could dance along. The dance consisted of clapping two fists together one on top of the other, followed by rolling the arms around each other. Otis' label, Capitol Records, also provided diagrams showing how to do the hand jive dance.
Despite the song's references to dancing, and despite the demonstrations of the dance during performances, would-be censors believed that the song glorifiedmasturbation. As recently as 1992, an interviewer for NPR asked Otis "Is 'Hand Jive' really about masturbation?" Otis was frustrated by this misinterpretation.
Eric Clapton covered "Willie and the Hand Jive" for his 1974 album 461 Ocean Boulevard. Clapton slowed down the tempo for his version. Author Chris Welch believes that the song benefits from this "slow burn". However, Rolling Stone critic Ken Emerson complains that the song sounds "disconcertingly mournful". Other critics praised Clapton's confident vocals. Author Marc Roberty claimed that on this song, "Eric's vocals had clearly matured, with fluctuations and intonations that were convincing rather than tentative as in the past." Clapton's version of the song was released as a single in 1974 and reached #26 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #28 in the Netherlands. Clapton included the song on his compilation album Time Pieces: Best of Eric Clapton. Clapton often played the song live, and it appeared on the live DVD One Night Only Live. Author Harry Shapiro said that the song could sound like "a dirge on bad nights but uplifting when the mood was right". Music author Dave Thompson claimed that Clapton's "live versions almost get you learning the [hand jive] movements all over again."
George Thorogood recorded a version of "Willie and the Hand Jive" for his 1985 album with the Destroyers Maverick. His single version charted on the Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, peaking at #25, and reached #63 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Allmusic critic James Christopher Monger called the song one of Thorogood's "high points." Thorogood included the song on his 2000 compilation album Anthology, his 2002 compilation album On Tap Plus, his 2003 compilation album The George Thorogood Collection and his 2008 compilation The Best of George Thorogood & the Destroyers.
In the 1960s, Cliff Richard covered the song in 1960 and The Strangeloves covered the song on their 1965 album I Want Candy. Johnny Rivers covered the song on his 1973 album Blue Suede Shoes. Other artists who covered the song include New Riders of the Purple Sage, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Sandy Nelson, The Tremeloes, Amos Garrett, Ducks Deluxe and Levon Helm. The Grateful Dead played "Willie and the Hand Jive" live several times in 1986 and 1987.
This song can be heard in The Shawshank Redemption.