Who the Hell is Johnny Otis?
Project type: Documentary Feature
Project status: Development
Producer: Doug Harris
Director: David Zeiger
Director of Photography: Jerry Henry
Archival Producer: Evangeline Griego
Director of Archival Research: Rich Remsberg
Editor: Lindsay Mofford
Motion Graphics: Christopher Kirk
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When a high school counselor told him to quit his Black friends, Loannis Veliotes dropped out, took his drum set on the road, and became Johnny Otis–a decades long innovator and promoter of Rhythm & Blues and Rock & Roll. Calling himself “Black by persuasion,” Johnny Otis tore through taboos against white and Black musicians playing together and wrote dozens of R&B and rock hits along with books and articles promoting Black liberation.
This is the story of a man who, born in 1921 to Greek immigrant parents in an integrated neighborhood in Berkeley, California, wholeheartedly cast his lot with the Black community and became both a major force in the creation and growth of African-American music and a champion of the Black Liberation struggle.
Johnny Otis has been dubbed the “Godfather of Rhythm & Blues,” a moniker he hated. “I was just privileged to be there,” he told music historian George Lipsitz in 1986. But in the spectrum of R&B and Rock & Roll, “there” was everywhere. In the nineteen forties and fifties he had over a dozen top ten recordings in the R&B charts, including four number one hits. 1958’s “Willie and the Hand Jive,” a classic of early rock & roll, was both number one on the R&B charts and reached number nine on the pop charts.
In 1965, as his beloved community of Watts was rising up in flames, Johnny Otis wrote “I can’t read the American White Establishment’s mind, therefore I don’t know if they really see the handwriting on the wall. But I do know that if the black man is not cut completely free of his misery he will continue to rock the boat and rock the boat and rock the boat…and I don’t mean nonviolent, organized demonstrations led by pompous, sanctimonious preachers and self-declared ‘leaders.’”
Thus began his 1968 book Listen to the Lambs, which the Los Angeles Times called “A disturbing, incisively written book.” The book is a roadmap into both the struggle by Black people for freedom and the determination of a man born to Greek immigrant parents to devote every fiber of his being to that struggle, a full-throated battle cry for an end to white supremacy.
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Meet the Filmmakers
Doug Harris – Producer
Doug Harris’ documentary career dates back to 1999, when as executive director of Athletes United for Peace he developed and managed the nonprofit organization’s media division. An accomplished athlete, he was named to the NAIA All-America team while a forward at Central Washington University, and in 1983 was drafted by the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.
Harris’ involvement in sports as player and coach helped shape his philosophy of team building within the filmmaking process, and served as the foundation for his warm and unique style of filmmaking. He earned his master of arts degree from California State University Monterey Bay in 1998, where he honed his skills in all facets of digital media production. His films have focused primarily on chronicling and preserving history through interesting stories about sports, historical events, communities, arts & culture, and politics. The films are popular in education, and Doug regularly appears on the speaking circuit as a guest lecturer at colleges and universities and in the media throughout Northern California and around the country.
David Zeiger — Director
Guggenheim Fellow David Zeiger has been making documentary films and series for 20 years, starting with The Band, a film about his son’s junior year in high school, broadcast on the PBS series P.O.V. in 1997. That was followed by the landmark thirteen-part PBS (U.S.) and Planete Cable (International) series Senior Year in 2002. Senior Year was funded by CPB, PBS, NAATA, LPB, and the MacArthur and Kellogg foundations, and was a national presentation by PBS. His short documentary, Funny Old Guys, was broadcast in 2002 by HBO. His 2006 film, Sir! No Sir!, ran theatrically in 65 cities throughout the U.S. and Canada and was broadcast in 200 countries worldwide, including on BBC Storyville, ARTE France, ABC Australia, and the Sundance Channel in the U.S. It won Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival (Audience Award) and Hamptons Film Festival, and Seeds of War Award at the Full Frame Documentary Festival, along with nominations for an International Documentary, Independent Spirit, and Gotham award. In 2010 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 2012 completed his first narrative feature, Sweet Old World.
Jerry Henry — Director of Photography
Jerry Henry is a LA-based Director/DP who received his MFA degree from UCLA’s prestigious Production Program with an emphasis on Documentary and Cinematography. His award-winning short documentary I Promise Africa premiered in over 100 film festivals worldwide and won many prestigious awards, among them a Directors Guild of America Student Award. Jerry’s visual talents can be seen in the Oscar nominated documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop directed by Banksy, and Peabody Award winning documentary American Revolutionary by director Grace Lee. He lent his DP talents to help shoot the Grammy Award winning HBO doc series titled The Defiant Ones which chronicles the life and work of Dr. Dre. and Jimmy Iovine. Jerry also lensed The Rachel Divide by director Laura Brownson premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is currently streaming on Netflix. Jerry contributed cinematography on the Oscar Nominated documentary short film St. Louis Superman by directors Smriti Mundra and Sami Khan. His most recent work is the Documentary/Narrative hybrid adaptation of the Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between the World and Me directed by Kamila Forbes which is currently streaming on HBO Max.
Evangeline Griego – Archival Producer
Evangeline Griego is a veteran independent filmmaker, director, and media activist. Griego is currently producing a series of short films for the Skirball Cultural Center’s upcoming exhibit Light & Noir and she recently produced the independent feature, Sweet Old World. Evangeline’s other producing credits include award-winning documentaries Chevolution, Sir! No Sir!,Calavera Highway, My Journey Home, and the PBS series, The New Americans. As director, Griego’s documentary God Willing aired nationally on PBS. Previously, she directed the award winning documentaries, Paño Arte: Images From Inside, and Border Visions/Visiones Fronterizos. Ms. Griego is a founder of the Silver Lake Film Festival in Los Angeles. She served on the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) board of directors for nine years and currently serves on the NALIP Advisory board.
Rich Remsberg – Director of Archival Research
Rich Remsberg is an Emmy Award-winning archival producer and researcher who works primarily on PBS documentaries, museum exhibits, and feature documentaries. His credits include Happy Valley, Anita, American Experience, American Masters, and The Mob Museum. His own short films have screened at the Walker Arts Center, the Bowery Ballroom, and the Slamdance Film Festival, and he is the author of two books, most recently Hard Luck Blues: Roots Music Photographs from the Great Depression. He has served on the faculty of the Maine Media Workshops and the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center Field School, was a frequent collaborator with the sampling-based music duo, The Books, and has been a contributor to VICE, Esopus and NPR’s online feature, The Picture Show.
Lindsay Mofford – Editor
Lindsay Mofford began her career as an assistant editor on several of Frederick Wiseman’s landmark films. With David Zeiger she edited Senior Year for PBS, Funny Old Guys for HBO, Sir! No Sir! and Sweet Old World.
Christopher Kirk – Motion Graphics
Christopher Kirk and Mindbomb Films have become, in recent years, the premier motion graphics company for documentary films, creating opening title and motion graphic sequences for Author! The JT Leroy Story, City of Gold, Weiner, Blackfish, and the narrative film Nina. They created the opening title sequence for David Zeiger’s films Sir! No Sir! and This is Where We Take Our Stand.
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