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During the mid-1960s, Chicago was one of the nation´s leading soul recording capitols. Otis Clay was one of the Windy City´s top young R&B singers when the style was at its absolute artistic peak, the intensity of his gospel-enriched deep soul attack startling in its vitality and richness. Today, he´s virtually a global ambassador for the timeless Chicago soul sound.
Respect Yourself, Clay´s new Blind Pig CD, is a thrilling indication of what Otis sounds like in concert. Recorded at the annual Lucerne Blues Festival in Switzerland in 2003 (it was his third consecutive starring appearance), the soul legend was backed by his frequent musical cohorts: Chicago´s own Platinum Band, nine pieces strong, led by guitarist "Hollywood" Scott and skin-tight in their groovemaking, and immaculate backup vocalists Theresa Davis and Diane Madison. This is what genuinely passionate soul music should always sound like.
"It´s a great festival, and it was the third year in a row we had been invited there. The people that run the festival do it for the love of the music, and the audiences are wonderful, so enthusiastic and appreciative," says Otis. "It´s just a lot of fun."
Born February 11, 1942 in the rural community of Waxhaw, Mississippi, Otis was raised in a spiritually centered environment. "My mother used to make me go to church every Sunday," he says. "My family, there was a lot of singers in the family. there was all these groups in my house rehearsing. So we were kids, and we would sit there and we would watch them. They were singing and everything. So when that rehearsal was over, then we would always try to imitate them. I guess that´s how it all got started."

In 1953, Clay´s family relocated to Muncie, Indiana, and at age 12 he was singing with a gospel group, the Voices of Hope. After a brief return to Mississippi and a stint with the Christian Travellers, Otis settled in Chicago in 1957 and joined the Golden Jubilaires. "I came up through all the ranks and everything, and then I became a professional gospel singer," he says. "That was always one of my goals. That´s where I got all my training." He signed on with Charles Bridges´ Famous Blue Jay Singers in 1959, touring the East Coast singing old-fashioned jubilee-style spirituals, then hooked up with Chicago´s Holy Wonders and Pilgrim Harmonizers. 

But it was hard to resist the secular call. "I always loved Sam Cooke, simply because I followed the same pattern that he did, being in the gospel thing and switching over," he says. Otis cut four R&B sides in 1962 for Columbia Records, but they laid unissued. In ‘64, Otis made his official recording debut in a sanctified setting, fronting the Gospel Songbirds´ "Let Jesus Lead You" for Nashville´s Nashboro logo. Fellow Songbird Maurice Dollison sang R&B under the moniker of Cash McCall and helped convince Clay to take the secular plunge the following year at George and Ernie Leaner´s Chicago-based One-derful! Records.

"Cash McCall, he and I, we worked in quite a few gospel groups together. And he was down there," says Clay. "That´s when I started going down to One-derful!" Labelmate Harold Burrage became a mentor. "We were playing at the Regal, had a gospel show at the Regal, and I was with the Sensational Nightingales. During the time I was with the Nightingales, I had already signed a recording contract with One-derful! Records," Clay says. "He came out to the Regal and caught the show. He was living on the West Side, I was living on the West Side. It just so happened that night, we were on the same el. So we started talking."

"Flame In Your Heart," Otis´ ‘65 One-derful! debut, was a riveting deep soul ballad. It was swiftly followed by the storming "I Testify," a relentless "Easier Said Than Done," and his first national hit in 1967, the anguished "That´s How It Is (When You´re In Love)." "That was the first big record," he says. "We had some nice things before that, but that was the record that you really started feeling pro behind that. It took me a lot of places." Another One-derful! single, "A Lasting Love," dented the R&B charts before year´s end, coupled with a blistering revival of Burrage´s "Got To Find A Way." "Harold was a very good friend of mine. I guess that´s my way of paying tribute to a good friend. I enjoyed doing it. I always think of him whenever I sing the song, because Harold died in ‘66."
When One-derful! folded in 1968, Atlantic´s fledgling Cotillion subsidiary bought Clay´s contract. "One day, George Leaner calls me in and says, ‘Hey, you´re goin´ to Atlantic.´ He was going out of the business," says Otis. "George was always gonna kind of look out for me, because I was kind of like a son of his. We had a father-son type of relationship." Atlantic dispatched Clay to red-hot Muscle Shoals to record at producer Rick Hall´s FAME Studios. "That was the place to go. Atlantic was the hot label, and Muscle Shoals was the hot place where they were recording at the time. That caused quite a bit of excitement." His blazing remake of the Sir Douglas Quintet´s "She´s About A Mover" was a sizable hit in the summer of ‘68. "Cotillion is always my label, because I had the first release on Cotillion," jokes Otis. "We was sitting around there, and you know how producers are--they come up with tunes. The first time I went in there, we said, ‘Hey, we better put it on hold,´ because we really didn´t have the material. Then the next time I came in, that was one of the tunes he suggested. I liked the tune. We got into it, man, it really started happening there." Cotillion released four Clay singles in all, including a hard-driving revival of Jimmy Hughes´ "I´m Qualified," a brass-powered "Hard Working Woman" produced by his Chi-Town pal Syl Johnson, and the deeply moving ballad "Is It Over?," produced by a moonlighting Willie Mitchell in Memphis.

And that was Clay´s next stop in 1971: Memphis-based Hi Records, where Willie called the shots. "Al Green wasn´t a superstar at the time, but a lot of good stuff was coming out of that studio. (WVON deejay) Pervis Spann and I--I don´t know if you could say he was my manager or just my good friend, because it was a combination of both," says Clay. "Through discussion and the buzz in the industry of who was really hot at the time, the Willie Mitchell thing came about." 

With the label´s vaunted rhythm section at his behest, Clay did some of his best work for Hi, beginning with the luxurious "Home Is Where The Heart Is" and continuing with a glorious redo of Jackie Moore´s then-recent million-seller "Precious, Precious." "That was a favorite song of Pervis Spann," says Otis. "Man, he lobbied for that song. He said, ‘Do that song! It´s a woman-recorded song, but a man needs to record that song!´" Lightning struck with "Trying To Live My Life Without You," a #24 R&B hit in late ‘72 that propelled Clay onto Don Cornelius´Soul Train. Written by Eugene  Williams, it was relayed to Otis by composer George Jackson. "I had been in the studio all that day, and on into the night. I had left for the night," recalls Otis. "I was at the hotel. Probably about one o´clock, they called me. Willie Mitchell said, ‘Otis, I know you´re sleeping and everything, but you´ve got to hear this song!´ He was in the control room, and George was out in the studio at the piano. This is about one o´clock, so you can imagine about where everybody is around that time, after hittin´ it for so long. Willie says, ‘Okay, George, I got Otis on the phone--play the song for him!´ And George says, ‘I-I used to smoke five packs of cigarettes a day...´ That´s how we came up with the intro!" Its success spawned Clay´s classic first album, logically titled Trying to Live My Life Without You. 

Following the surging "I Didn´t Know The Meaning Of Pain," Clay hit again for Hi with the uplifting George Jackson composition "If I Could Reach Out" in late ‘73. "That song was frightening," says Otis. "Because when that song came out, I said, ‘Wow, I can´t do what I´ve been doing. This is going to be a whole another thing for me. I´m going to have to go in another direction.´" The multi-faceted Clay often headlines gospel shows nowadays, and "If I Could Reach Out" frequently finds its way into his sanctified repertoire.

After several more Hi singles and another long-player (I Can´t Take It), Clay moved to TK-distributed Kayvette Records and scored his last national R&B hit single in 1977, the sparkling Muscle Shoals-cut "All Because Of Your Love." Since then, he´s done two impeccable live albums in Japan (where his visits are nationally hailed), helmed his own Echo label, and made two fine old school soul albums for Bullseye Blues: 1992's I´ll Treat You Right (the source of "I Can Take You To Heaven Tonight") and the Willie Mitchell-produced ‘98 release This Time Around, where he first cut "You´re The One I Choose" and "When Hearts Grow Cold." In between those two, he made his first all-spiritual album for Blind Pig in 1993, The Gospel Truth featuring the exhilarating "When The Gates Swing Open."
These days, Otis splits his performing time between secular and sanctified pursuits, the latter bringing things full circle for one of Chicago´s most revered soul greats.