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
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
"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
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
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
"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.