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“God Loves It All” – Otis Clay: Sunday, July 3, 9:30 p.m., Tent Stage PDF Print E-mail
Music - Mississippi Valley Blues Festival
Written by Karen McFarland   
Wednesday, 22 June 2011 06:03

Is he soul? Is he blues? Is he gospel? Yes, and he has become an iconic figure in all those genres.” – Chicago Sun-Times

Otis Clay

“I’ve always been a bit open-minded about the music,” Otis Clay said in a recent phone interview. He recalled that when he first went professional, he performed a genre of music called jubilee that included show tunes alongside gospel. “In the ’60s we would be all up in the Catskills during the week, and do churches on Sunday. I had done secular even then. [But] I never left gospel. It was all mixed up in there.”

That genre-blending had begun even before Clay – who will receive the Mississippi Valley Blues Society RiverRoad Lifetime Achievement Award before his July 3 festival performance – started touring when he was 18. Born in Waxhaw, Mississippi, in 1942, Clay started singing in the church at four, but even then he was also getting a different music education. “My father was an entrepreneur – he always had a juke joint, and my mother was very religious. But ... for the Saturday-night fish fries, she would cook and sell sandwiches,” Clay said. There he would listen to John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf on the jukebox. He was seven years old when he experienced his first live concert: Muddy Waters in Clarksdale.

Clay remembers listening to his favorite, Charles Brown, on the radio. And like so many other Delta bluesmen, he would listen to Sonny Boy Williamson on the King Biscuit Time program every day at noon. “And then on Saturday nights I listened to the Grand Ole Opry. My exposure to music has always been very broad: The Hit Parade, Rosemary Clooney, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra of course.”

Those were Clay’s early influences. But his idol for both gospel and soul is Sam Cooke, who himself started his career in gospel with the Soul Stirrers and then “crossed over” in 1957 to become a pop sensation in the soul category. Cooke recorded until his death at 33 in 1964, and his reign as “king of soul” coincided with Clay’s formative years as a performer.

Clay was involved with many different gospel groups in his younger years. In 1957 he moved to Chicago’s West Side, and he first recorded with the Gospel Songbirds in 1964. Soon after, he accepted an offer to join the renowned Sensational Nightingales, with whom he toured until mid-1965. As Clay’s career developed, he continued to mix soul, blues, and gospel sounds, and by the late ’60s, when he crossed over from gospel to soul, he found himself part of a great soul-music surge.

He signed with Chicago’s One-derful label, and the singer broke into the R&B charts in 1967. “The owner of One-derful was like a father to me,” Clay said. “He told me, ‘I’m going out of business, but you’re going with [music giant] Atlantic.’ That was in 1968. So I went to Muscle Shoals,” Alabama, famed for its soul sound. With Rick Hall as producer, Clay recorded two hit sides in Muscle Shoals. “Aretha was going there, Wilson Pickett – all that thing was happening at that time between Memphis and Muscle Shoals,” Clay said. “And I thank God I was there!”

“Is It Over?” (1971) was Clay’s first session with producer Willie Mitchell, who was working for Atlantic at that time but was establishing his own Hi Records, later famed for producing Al Green. Clay followed Mitchell to Memphis and Hi at the end of 1971, and Clay hit with “Trying to Live My Life Without You” in 1972. “Willie Mitchell was hot, and Memphis was hot,” Clay said. “Al Green hadn’t broke loose at that time, so we were all there at Hi records.”

When disco and funk swept America in the mid-’70s, Clay’s style fell out of favor with radio programmers. While many soul singers were following the disco trend, Clay remained committed to the raw, emotion-packed ideals of deep soul. In 1975, he started his own record company, Echo Records, giving him the freedom to record and produce his own gospel and soul albums.

Music critic Bill Dahl notes: “Otis Clay made most of his best-known records in Memphis during the early ’70s, but he’s still universally hailed as Chicago’s deep-soul king. ... Although Clay’s tenure on Hi may have been his most commercially potent, he has steadily recorded and gigged ever since. He is a genuine hero in Japan, where he’s recorded two sizzling live albums filled with the churning grooves, punchy horns, and searing vocals that inevitably characterize the best deep soul.”

Clay recalled: “Our first tour of Japan was 1978. You have to understand, I wasn’t even supposed to be there. [Southern-soul singer/songwriter] O.V. Wright was sick, so I went. They just record you. We had the most unique experience of anyone because the album was voted the best soul album in Japan, tied with the Commodores, in front of Natalie Cole, the Brothers Johnson, and the O’Jays.

Soul Man Live in Japan was the second live album in Japan. The fans there have always been great to me, right from the beginning.” Clay noted that the only song he didn’t record at Hi that he wanted to was Al Green’s “Love & Happiness.” But he did that live in Japan – and he had the whole Hi rhythm section behind him then.

For the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, Clay will be backed by a super-group of eight or nine, most of them from the band of the late Tyrone Davis (“If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time”). “We did the Respect Yourself album recorded in Switzerland in 2003 – these are the same guys,” Clay said. “I use the same lineup whether I’m doing secular or gospel.”

His singing style doesn’t change with the genre, either. The only difference between gospel and blues, according to Clay, is “the topic, the subject matter. One is the deity and the other one is your personal life. ... The difference is you’re talking about your love life, what’s going on under the heavens [with blues and soul], and in gospel you’re talking about where you want to go and how you’re going to get there.” During our interview, Clay said he thinks God “ordained” bluesmen such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. “Show me a good bluesman,” he said, “and I’ll show you a God’s man. God loves it all.”

Clay released the gospel record Walk a Mile in My Shoes in 2007, but recently he thought, “It’s about time for a soul album.” Truth Is was released on June 21 and features originals by Clay and soul songwriter Darrell Carter, whom he met at Hi in the ’70s. Clay is also the featured singer on a Bo-Keys album recently recorded in Memphis with some of the original session musicians from Hi and Stax; Clay puts his spin on the title track, “Got to Get Back,” which is also being released as a single.

On August 4, he’ll perform at Chicago’s Millennium Park with a program called “Otis Clay: The Gospel of Soul & Jazz,” in honor of Mahalia Jackson’s centennial and what would have been Sam Cooke’s 85th year.

Clay said he’s thrilled to be coming back to Davenport because of his special bond with the Mississippi Valley Blues Society. Right after the great flood of 1993, Clay gave a performance to raise money for the society, and he was given the key to the city of Davenport. His set on the Tent Stage promises to end this year’s festival with a roof-raising blend of soul, blues, and gospel.

Karen McFarland is a member of the Mississippi Valley Blues Society board of directors.

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