Another great man has done a full go-round. With the passing of Chicago soul-blues singer Otis Clay on January 8th, music lost one of its true greats, a guy who lived for the music he loved and was on the road till the day he died.
Born in backwoods Mississippi, Clay kicked off his career, like many before him, with gospel before moving on to the developing world of soul music, initially with Chicago label One-derful in the early ’60s, followed swiftly by Atlantic Records as the decade came to a close.
Clay had a voice that mirrored his own loves—soulful, bluesy and always searching and strong. He was a noted humanitarian and helped many young aspiring musicians by mentoring them as they found their way onto the stage. With Clay, what you saw was genuinely what you got.
His work with soul-buddy Johnny Rawls, both live and in the studio (with the excellent Soul Brothers release on Catfood Records in 2014) was a highlight of his career and he clearly enjoyed the partnership and music they did together.
I last spoke with Clay in July 2015 when he played a storming set at France’s premiere blues festival, Cognac Blues Passions. Here he turned up with a full-blown ten-piece band (who does that on tour these days!) including three soul sisters on support vocals and Rodd Bland (son of Bobby Blue) on drums. After over an hour under fierce strobes and sweltering French summer evening temperatures, he returned to the stage for a stunning encore where he slipped effortlessly from “Amen” to “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” before literally staggering, exhausted, exhilarated and happy, pouring sweat, swaying from side to side down the backstage ramp to meet applause from Selwyn Birchwood, among others, who had earlier that evening opened the event.
What he told me before going onstage that evening remained true as a mantra he lived by till the day of his passing: “I don’t think of myself as a soul singer or a blues singer. If it’s good music, that’s what matters.” Amen, indeed.