Even though he did his early recordings in his adopted hometown of Chicago, Otis Clay’s impassioned vocal delivery betrayed his Waxhaw, Mississippi beginnings (he was born there on February 11, 1942). So when he signed with Memphis-based Hi Records in 1971 to work with producer Willie Mitchell and the skin-tight house band at Royal Recording, he sounded right at home.
“I call Willie Mitchell my musical father. I love the man. We worked very close together. I learned a lot in working with him,” says Otis. “It wasn’t like, ‘You gotta do this, you got three hours, and then after that so-and-so is coming in,’ and everybody’s watching the clock. When it was time to work, we worked.”
Naturally, Clay’s roots lie in gospel soil. He moved to Chicago in 1956, joining The Golden Jubilaires and later singing with The Famous Blue Jay Singers, The Holy Wonders and Pilgrim Harmonizers. He investigated going secular in 1962, waxing a date for Columbia producer Carl Davis that remains unissued to this day. The world did hear him front The Gospel Songbirds on Nashboro in ‘64. Clay crossed over to the R&B side of the tracks the next year at George and Ernie Leaner’s One-derful! Records, where veteran singer Harold Burrage mentored him.
A Flame In Your Heart, Clay’s first single, was a hair-raisingly intense ballad. He posted two 1967 hits for the company, That’s How It Is (When You’re In Love) and A Lasting Love, and made more that should have followed suit before moving to Atlantic’s new Cotillion logo the next year. “One day George Leaner calls me in and says, ‘’Hey, you’re going to Atlantic!’” says Clay. “He was going out of the business.” Despite making great sides in Muscle Shoals, Chicago, and Memphis, no hits were forthcoming. Otis’ manager, WVON deejay Pervis Spann, sent him to Mitchell, producer of his last Cotillion release, and Hi Records.
Clay’s third Hi single, Trying To Live My Life Without You, was the biggest seller he ever had. Though the work of songwriter Eugene Williams, better-known songsmith George Jackson brought it to Otis’ attention. “Willie Mitchell called me, and he said, ‘Hey Otis, I know it’s late.’ But Willie Mitchell’s got this yellow plastic cup that he always was drinking from, and George always had a beer,” says Clay. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m awake, yeah.’ Even when you’re asleep, when somebody that important calls you, you’re awake, you know. So he said, ‘Man, this guy George Jackson wrote a hit record here.’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah?’ He said, ‘Yeah!’
“They’ve been tying it on all day, and on into the night. So George is at the piano. I said, ‘Yeah, let me hear it!’ He said, ‘Hey, George, I got Otis on the horn. Go on and do the tune!’ And George was like, ‘I-I used to smoke five packs…’ And that’s how the intro thing came about. ‘Cause I remember it so vividly, man. It was a phrase that we used because of the condition that he was in at that time!”
Trying To Live My Life Without You was a #24 R&B hit in late 1972 (Bob Seger’s ’81 rock remake was much bigger). Otis scored again with Jackson’s inspiring If I Could Reach Out (And Help Somebody) the next year, like its predecessor benefitting from the rock-solid grooves of Hi Rhythm. Chicago remains Clay’s home. No one better represents the Windy City’s soul legacy.
- Bill Dahl -
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