Otis Clay and band and Miki by Janet Patience
Photo by Janet Patience

OTIS CLAY February 11, 1942 – January 8, 2016

By Iain Patience

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 at its core 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 aspirants by mentoring them as they found and forced their way onto the stage. He was a guy with simply no front. What you saw was genuinely what you got from this guy. His work with soul-buddy Johnny Rawls, both live on-tour and in the studio with the excellent ‘Soul Brothers’ release on Catfood Records, in 2014, was in many ways a highlight of his career and he clearly enjoyed the partnership and music they did together.

I last spoke with Otis 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 Steve Croppers’ wonderful ‘Dock of the Bay’ – a track generally associated with yet another legendary soul-singing Otis – 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.

Inducted into the Blues Music Hall of Fame in 2013, what he told me before going on-stage that evening, remained true – 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.

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