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Otis Clay
by Bill Pollak

Originally published in MusicHound R&B: The Essential Album Guide, Gary Graff, Josh Freedom du Lac, and Jim McFarlin (eds.); Visible Ink Press (Detroit, MI): 1998.

Born 1942 in Waxhaw, Mississippi

Otis Clay's intense and enduring dedication to his craft has earned him status as the 1990s torch-bearer for hard soul music, the last of the great soul men. Clay's style is rooted in the tradition of hard-shouting gospel quartet leads such as Julius Cheeks of the Sensational Nightingales (Clay was a member of the post-Cheeks Nightingales in his younger days). His secular recording career began in his hometown of Chicago for George Leaner's One-derful label, where he recorded under the guidance of mentors such as Harold Burrage and Cash McCall. Although crude by comparison to his later work, his One-derful recordings have an intensity and exuberance that few soul men have ever approached, most notably his relentless vocal performance of McCall's "That's How It Is."

After One-derful, Clay recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama for the Atlantic subsidiary Cotillion. His last Cotillion 45, the double-sided hit Is "It Over" / "I'm Qualified", was produced by Willie Mitchell in Memphis and led to the creative high point of Clay's career, his recordings for Hi Records. Clay recorded two LPs and a number of 45s for Hi with Mitchell and his Memphis production machine: the Hi Rhythm Section, the most precise and accomplished of the great southern soul rhythm sections of the 60s and 70s; brother James Mitchell's brilliant horn and string arrangements; and the incomparable country/soul vocal trio of Rhodes, Chalmers, and Rhodes. Clay's biggest hit recording for Hi, "Trying to Live My Life Without You," (later covered by both the J. Geils Band and Bob Seger) was only one of many equally strong performances. In particular, the ballads he recorded with Mitchell--"I Can't Take It," "I Die a Little Each Day," "Precious Precious," "The Woman Don't Live Here No More"--stand among the deepest, most intense performances in the genre.

After a brief stint at TK Records in Florida, Clay recorded two brilliant live LPs in Japan that solidified his reputation as a tireless and electrifying live performer and touring artist, a reputation that he continues to earn to this day.

Buy first:[Hi Records Years: The Best of Otis Clay] (EMI/Right Stuff, 1996, prod. Various, mostly Willie Mitchell) (4 1/2 bones) is the most thorough and well documented available collection of Clay's recordings with Willie Mitchell in Memphis. Other excellent compilations are

  • [That's How It Is] (Hi, 1991, prod. Willie Mitchell) (4 1/2 bones) and
  • [The 45s] (Hi, 1995, prod. Willie Mitchell) (4 1/2 bones).

Buy next:

  • [Soul Man Live in Japan] (Bullseye Blues, 1984, prod. Otis Clay; also released on Rooster Blues) (3 1/2 bones), the second of Clay's two Japanese live recordings, features the Hi Rhythm Section and a strong collection of songs. Clay had suffered from a serious automobile accident a few months before the recording and is not quite in top vocal form.
  • [I'll Treat You Right] (Bullseye Blues, 1992, prod. Ron Levy) (3 1/2 bones) is Clay's most-recent studio recording. Although the production lacks the sparkling veneer of Clay's best work, this is a worthy collection of strong material, well executed and passionately sung.
  • [On My Way Home: The Otis Clay Gospel Collection] (Bullseye Blues, 1993, prod. Ron Levy) (3 1/2 bones) includes a duet with the great Clarence Fountain of the Five Blind Boys of Alabama.
  • Clay contributes an excellent vocal of O.V. Wright's "A Nickle and a Nail" to Roy Buchanan's [When a Guitar Plays the Blues] (Alligator, 1985, prod. Dick Shurman) (3 bones)

Avoid: None

The rest:

  • [Trying to Live My Life Without You] (Hi, 1972, prod. Willie Mitchell) (4 1/2 bones)
  • [I Can't Take It] (Hi, 1977, prod. Willie Mitchell) (4 1/2 bones)
  • [The Only Way Is Up] (Waylo, 1985, prod. Otis Clay, Troy Thompson, Benjamin Wright) (3 bones)
  • [His Precious Love] (Paula, 1990, prod. Otis Clay) One song by Clay and the rest by Walter Hatchett (3 bones)
  • [Watch Me Now] (Waylo, 1989, prod. Willie Mitchell; also released by Victor Musical Industries in Japan and Blues R&B in the U.S.) (2 bones)
  • [When the Gates Swing Open] (Echo, 1990, prod. Otis Clay) (2 bones)
  • [Gospel Truth] (Blind Pig, 1993, prod. Otis Clay) (3 bones)
  • [Willie Clayton/Otis Clay: [You Are My Life] (MMS, 1995, prod. unknown) (2 bones)
  • Chicago Soul Greats] (Hi, 1995, prod. Willie Mitchell) (4 bones)

Worth searching for:

  • Although difficult to find in the U.S., [Live in Japan] (JVC Japan, 1981, prod. Otis Clay) (5 bones) was the first and stronger of Clay's Japanese live recordings. Clay is in top form, backed by his tight, incendiary backup band Chicago Fyre.
  • [Got to Find a Way] (P-Vine, Japanese, 1979, prod. Various) (4 bones) is a collection of Clay's 19 recordings for One-derful.
  • [A Memphis Soul Night Live in Europe] (Waylo, 1990, prod. Willie Mitchell ) (4 bones) captures a live performance featuring Clay, Ann Peebles, Lynn White, and David Hudson, backed by Willie Mitchell and the Hi Rhythm Section.
  • For a taste of Clay's earliest gospel work, see [Ring Them Golden Bells: The Best of the Gospel Songbirds] (AVI/Nashboro, 1995, prod. Robert Y. Kim and Opal Louis Nations) (4 bones). Clay is featured as lead vocalist on two songs, and he shares lead vocals with Maurice Dollison (later known as Cash McCall) on two others. Also featured is Chicago soul singer James Phelps.
  • Clay performs a duet on "That's How It Is" with Billy Price on Price's [The Soul Collection] (Green Dolphin, 1997, prod. Billy Price and H.B. Bennett) (5 bones) and contributes some background vocals.

Influenced by:  Rev. Julius Cheeks (Sensational Nightingales), Joe Ligon (Mighty Clouds of Joy), Clarence Fountain (Five Blind Boys of Alabama), Harold Burrage, Cash McCall, James Carr, O.V. Wright

Influenced: Robert Cray, J. Geils Band, Bob Seger, Tyrone Davis

Read more soul articles by Bill Pollak

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