When it comes to deep soul, there’s no argument that Otis Clay is king. Along with Otis Redding, Tyrone Davis, Wilson Pickett, Johnnie Taylor and Sam and Dave, he helped shape the sound of the New Generation in the ’60s with his incendiary, soul-wrenching, horn-filled, gospel-tinged performance.
Today, at 71, the West Side Chicago legend steadfastly carries the torch, delivering the music to a new audience long after most of his early contemporaries met their reward. He was inducted into the Blues Music Hall Of Fame last spring and was recently nominated in two categories for the 2014 Blues Music Awards, but he doesn’t show the slightest sign of slowing down.
Whenever Clay takes the stage, angels stop to listen. He’s equal parts grit, growl and heavenly joy, seamlessly melding the worlds of blues and gospel into one with a hint of other musical styles thrown in for good measure. Other folks do the same, but Otis has built a huge following on both the secular and spiritual sides of the street. His soul releases have been frequent, consistently fresh and well-received, and one gospel album in particular still is a consistent seller 20 years after it hit the streets.
It’s no surprise that he can juggle both worlds so well when you consider his upbringing. Many artists born when he was were frowned upon by members of “proper” society for choosing a path in the blues, but the duality is his birthright. The youngest of ten children, he’s the son of Anthony and Elizabeth Clay, and came into the world on Feb. 11, 1942, in rural Waxhaw, not far from the river in northwest Mississippi.
“There really was only one type of music in the house,” Otis remembers, “and that was gospel. But my father now, he was a farmer; he was a renter; and an entrepreneur. He had a juke joint, and in the back room, you know what they was a-doin’…he was gamblin’ and all that stuff. My mother was a church lady. But in the house, whatever my mother said, that was the law.
“You had the perfect balance there, you know…devil or angel…and I had the choice.”
Mom made him go to church every Sunday. It served his soul while also serving as the true center of the community. “We would go to church on Sunday, and play ‘church’ the rest of the week,” he says. “We’d imitate the preacher, and if there was singin’ goin’ on, imitate the song. That was going on as far back as I can remember.”
Clay got interested in music early, playing both guitar and drums. There were several vocalists in the family, and their home often served as a rehearsal studio. “We would sit there and watch ’em,” he recalls. “When the rehearsal was over, we would always try to imitate them. That’s how it all started.”
And secular music entered the home via the radio.
“At noon, we listened to Sonny Boy Williamson, coming out of Helena, Ark.,” Clay says. “Every Saturday night, it was the Grand Ole Opry.” Among his early favorites were country superstars Hank Williams and Roy Acuff, as well as mainstream artists, including Rosemary Clooney and Vaughan Monroe.
By the time Otis was a teenager, he’d already served stints in two gospel groups, the Voices Of Hope in Muncie, Ind., where the family moved briefly, and the Christian Travellers back home in Mississippi. At age 16, he settled in Chicago and began singing professionally with the Golden Jubilaires. By the late ’50s, he was a member of Charles Bridges’ Famous Blue Jay Singers, who toured the East Coast extensively. For Clay, they were a perfect fit. “We were like variety singers, jubilee singers,” he says. Created first at Fisk University, jubilee singers generally were a group of males who sang traditional black spirituals along with secular harmony music.
“We’d work all week goin’ to schools, and hotels and things like that, and on Sunday, we’d find a church. My exposure to a white audience goes back to 1960 with my experience with the Blue Jays.” Their weekday repertoire appealed to the masses and included standards like “That Old Gang Of Mine” and “Mother Machree” as well as covers of current hits like “The Twist.”
Clay tried to follow the path of Sam Cooke, who had made the jump from singing gospel with the Soul Stirrers to a solo secular career. In 1962 he hooked up with Columbia Records at the same time as another Chicagoan, Major Lance. Soon after, Lance had a major hit on his hands with “Monkey Time.” Sadly, however, Otis’ recorded four sides never saw the light of day.
His first vinyl pressing turned out to be “Let Jesus Lead You” two years later while singing lead with the Gospel Songbirds, a group that included Maurice Dollison Jr., who later became better known amongst blues aficionados as guitarist Cash McCall. The two men worked in several spiritual ensembles together, and he gave Clay the nudge he needed when he finally launched a solo secular career.
It happened when McCall went into the studio for George Leaner at One-derful! Records, Otis joined him, quickly earning himself a contract with the label. “It wound up like goin’ home,” Clay says, “because George would sit down and talk to me about things. It was like dealing with your father, really.”
Leaner released Clay’s searing ballad, “Flame In Your Heart,” in 1965, followed in quick succession by the gospel-flavored “I Testify” and the classic bass-driven burner, “Easier Said Than Done,” in which the singer is torn between his unforgettable love for a lady and the realization that the relationship was destroyed by her lies. Several other minor successes followed, but Otis’ first major national hit came in 1967.
“That’s How It Is (When You’re In Love)” followed. Written by McCall, it ended up among the Top 30 on the Billboard R&B charts, followed closely by another hit, “A Lasting Love,” backed by a cover of the Harold Burrage classic, “Got To Find A Way.” Otis and Burrage were both West Side Chicago residents and close friends, and Clay recorded the tune as a tribute after Burrage died the year before.
But Otis’ stay at One-derful! was about to end. Leaner decided to close the business. It’s possible he was a visionary who saw hard times ahead. The civil unrest of the lat ’60s was approaching fast, and would bring the popularity of black music in America to a screeching halt.
But before he did, Lerner secured Clay a spot with Atlantic Records’ Cottilion label. “George was always going to look out for me,” Otis recalls.
The move proved a blessing. Instead of recording in the Windy City, Clay quickly found himself at the FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where everyone from Arthur Alexander (“You Better Move On”) to Jimmy Hughes (“Steal Away”) to Mac Davis (“Baby, Don’t Get Hooked On Me”) and the Osmonds (“One Bad Apple”) laid down tracks, joined by a who’s who of folks in the music business, including Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and more.
His first release – the first ever on the Cotillion imprint in 1968 – was a soul-sanctified cover of “She’s About A Mover,” the 1965 hit for the Sir Douglas Quintet. Written by Doug Sahm and considered by some critics to be the best song ever written in the Lone Star State, it was a hit. Four more singles followed, including “Hard Working Woman,” under the direction of Chicago soul-blues legend Syl Johnson, and “Is It Over?,” produced by the legendary Willie Mitchell.
Based in Memphis, Mitchell was the most important producer and arranger of his time, working with the Hi label, and recording Johnson, O.V. Wright and Al Green. Otis met him through Pervis Spann. More than 50 years later, Clay still can’t pin down the role Spann played in his life. He was an important player in the Chicago music scene as disc jockey on WVON, the radio station owned by the Chess brothers. To Clay, the Blues Hall Of Famer was a mentor, good friend and part-time manager, too.
Mitchell was moonlighting from Hi when he and Otis met. That was a common occurrence back then. “Willie was doin’ a lot of production projects,” Clay says. “He was having success with a lot of folks. He had a million-seller with Denise LaSalle. That’s the way the industry was at the time…if somebody was havin’ success, everybody was going that way.”
By 1971, however, Otis and Willie were joined at the hip. “Things started burnin’ up,” he says.
Clay left Cotillion and moved to Hi, and the relationship proved magical. It began with the beautiful “Home Is Where The Heart Is,” followed by a cover of “Precious, Precious.” The song had been a smash for female vocalist Jackie Moore about a year earlier, but Spann, who loved it, insisted it needed a man’s touch. As usual, he was right.
As good as those tunes proved to be, however, nothing could top “Trying To Live My Life Without You,” penned by Eugene Williams. After a long day in the studio working with Otis on other material, Mitchell heard George Jackson playing it on the studio piano. He liked it so much that he went straight to the telephone and called Clay in the middle of the night to get him to listen to it. Otis’ version of the song climbed to No. 24 on the R&B charts in 1972 and earned him an appearance on Soul Train. That performance still lives today on YouTube. And subsequent versions laid down by Bob Segar and the J. Geils Band climbed as high as No. 5 on the pop charts. The song also provided the title track for his first secular LP.
One more soul hit, “I Didn’t Know The Meaning Of Pain,” followed before another Jackson composition changed Clay’s life dramatically. “If I Could Reach Out (And Help Somebody” was a heartfelt appeal for more love and cooperation in the world, an end to hunger and poverty. The spiritually uplifting message made the artist reevaluate his life. “When that song came out, I said: ‘Wow! I can’t do what I’ve been doing,’” he says. “I’m going to have to go in another direction.”
Not only did the song lead him back to gospel, but it also fueled his strong social conscience.
More successes followed for a succession of labels, including Kayvette, Bullseye Blues, Blind Pig and his own imprint, Echo, with Clay interspersing secular material with the divine.
The world literally opened for him in the late ’70s when he traveled to Japan for the first time. He had strong reservations about the trip, with Pearl Harbor and World War II still strong in his mind. What he found when he got there totally shocked him.
“They were up on my music,” he says. “They knew the songs and knew what they meant.” He’s been a superstar there ever since, and his 1983 album Soul Man: Live In Japan, recorded for Bullseye at the famed Budokan Arena in Tokyo, has proven to be one of the most seminal of all soul-blues recordings.
“We’ll take it anywhere we can get it,” Otis chuckles. “But we never reached that thing where we wanted it in America.”
He’s a favorite in Europe, too, as evidenced by a pair of CDs recorded live in Lucerne, Switzerland, and overseas success fueled a revival of interest in his career back home.
Between new releases and reissues of his early material, Clay has produced a long list of CDs in the past 30 years, including gospel albums The Gospel Truth, released in 1993, remains a best-seller.
But Otis refuses to pause for even a deep breath.
2013 proved to be a banner year for him. Not only was he enshrined in the Blues Music Hall Of Fame, but he’s also earned nominations for the upcoming Blues Music Awards as Soul Blues Male Artist Of The Year and Soul Blues Album Of The Year for his Truth Is release. That disc is competing with an O.V. Wright tribute CD he also was involved in. Clay’s vocal power assists Johnny Rawls on three tunes on the recording, entitled Remembering O.V.
Oh, yes, and another Clay release recently hit store shelves. Trying To Live My Life Without You is a brand-new CD that came about as the result of Otis work on the new documentary, Take Me To The River.
Directed by Martin Shore, who’s worked as a touring blues musician himself, it was filmed in Memphis, with much of the material recorded at Mitchell’s legendary Royal Studios under the direction of his son Boo, who co-produces the film. It deals with a long-standing tradition in the music scene: the mentorship of young artists by the musicians who’ve preceded them.
All of the senior tunesmiths in the film worked with members of the younger generation who grew up within 100 miles of the River City. Clay lent a hand with the Bo-Keys, the sensational eight-piece band whose members served time in the B.B. King Orchestra, the Hi Rhythm Section and with Otis Redding before going out on their own. The movie documents the production of their 2011 CD, Got To Get Back!
Otis’ music is featured in the soundtrack along with the works of Terrence Howard, Mavis Staples, Booker T. Jones, Bobby Rush, William Bell, Snoop Dogg, Frayser Boy, the North Mississippi Allstars, among others. And the work includes scenes from one of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s last recording sessions.
Away from the stage – and screen, Clay is deeply involved in a totally different form of mentoring.
No stranger to non-profit work, he toiled previously as chairman of the board of Tobacco Road, Inc., a group on Chicago’s South Side that helped redevelop the historic Bronzeville neighborhood, the traditional heart of black culture in the city. One of their successful endeavors was to revitalize the legendary Regal Theatre. Once one of the most important venues in music history, it had fallen into disrepair. The group turned it in to a cultural and education center with a state-of-the-art showroom that seats 1,100 people.
Today, he’s neck-deep in the work of People For A New Direction. Based on the West Side, where he makes his home, it’s composed of successful people from many professions who are trying striving to stem the tide of poverty, crime and violence at a grassroots level through local initiatives aimed at the younger generation. Sadly, many young folks are running directionless in the streets, he says, while their elders are living behind locked doors.
“We’re gearing up for 2014. We’re trying to provide scholarships and other things,” says Clay, who serves on the board of directors. “It’s so much needed nowadays, especially in the black community. There’s always a stereotype of what’s happening there.
“We’re trying to create an element to break that. We’re trying to pull together a community where older people are never behind closed doors. There’s not a generations gap, there’s a communications gap. And we’re out to change it.”
There’s one thing for sure: Otis Clay is a determined man. If anyone can help bring about change, he can. And he won’t tolerate anyone standing in the way. He’s got an unyielding will and powerful allies in this world and beyond.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This “Vintage Interview” originally ran in the January 9, 2014 issue.
Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. Now based out of Charlotte, N.C., his first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.