On Saturday, January 8, the world awakened to the sad news of the death of legendary soul and gospel singer Otis Clay. The day before, the Mississippi-born musician suffered a fatal and massive heart attack.
The news of his death was both shocking and yet another blow to the music world as R&B icon Natalie Cole was put to rest on Monday and rock legend David Bowie succumbed to an 18-month battle with cancer.
Clay had a long and successful career building a solid fan base as one of the leading traditional classic soul singers in the music business.
Born February 11, 1942 in Waxham, Mississippi, he arrived in Chicago during the mid-‘50s and soon after joined the Gospel group, the Golden Jubilaires. He became a member of Charles Bridges’ Famous Blue Jay Singers in 1960. After that, his distinctive voice traveled among various hometown groups such as the Holy Wonders, the Pilgrim Harmonizers, the Gospel Songbirds and the Sensational Nightingales.
Having signed with the Chicago indie-based label, One-derful Records, Clay debuted with his first secular single, Flame In Your Heart in 1965. While there, he had success with his first national R&B hit, That’s How It Is (When You’re In Love), followed by a string of releases.
As his voice became a familiar sound on the soul music circuit, record label owner George Leaner decided to leave the music business and sold Clay’s remaining contract to Cotillion Records.
He recorded for Cotillion in Chicago with fellow soul screamer Syl Johnson at the helm; the torrid Hard Working Woman was one of their session’s highlights. “I said, ‘Man, this could be another Who’s Making Love,’” Clay once said. “So Syl said, ‘Why don’t you take it home and finish it, and then we’ll record it?’”
George Daniels, owner of George’s Music Room, recalls Clay’s growing popularity during this special time. “He was the most unique of all of the artists that came out of Chicago,” Daniels said. “Only a couple came out in that era in the ‘60s. Otis would sing at the popular nightclubs – the Bonanza, the High Chaparral on 78th and Stony Island, and Peyton’s Place.
“I’m naming these clubs because that’s where local artists performed. Every club had a house band. The Scott Brothers Band would back Otis, Tyrone Davis, Harlow Maxwell, David Scott, Chuck Bernard, and Sugar Pie DeSanto. Otis performed a great deal with this band.”
After leaving Atlantic Records, Clay signed with Hi Records, Al Green’s label, where he recorded several songs with Green’s producer Willie Mitchell in Memphis. He credited WVON’s Pervis Spann for making that collaboration happen.
He would pen some of his most notable work during his time at Hi Records, including Home Is Where The Heart Is, Jackie Moore’s Precious, Precious, and Trying to Live My Life, the song with which Clay made a Soul Train appearance in late 1972.
Chi-Lite’s member and friend Marshall Thompson remembered Clay: “Otis had his own thing, he sang with feeling. During that time, he had never got what was due to him,” Thompson says. “He was caught up in the Memphis sound and they didn’t get a chance to put him on the big shows because they concentrated on other artists on Hi Records.
“If so, he would’ve been as huge as the other artists. The timing was just wrong, but Otis did a great job. He was the most loved guy in the industry. He sang at both my mom and my wife’s funeral at Liberty Baptist Church.”
Clay launched his own label, Echo Records, in the mid-‘70s and released both full-length albums and singles, building up an international fan base along the way. He also had distribution partnerships and recorded live albums in Japan, along with releasing I’ll Treat You Right (1992) and This Time Around (1998) under Bullseye Blues.
As an established singer and songwriter, Commissioner Jerry ‘Iceman’ Butler said, “Otis was one of those rare talents—he was gifted. There’s a distinction that’s very hard to define. Otis was probably better outside of the city of Chicago than he was here. It demonstrated what a great influence Sam Cooke had been to young people around the world, Otis was in that rare group that could walk that line.”
A long-time resident of the West Side of Chicago, Clay was an active board member for People For New Direction, a community based organization focused on economic development, and he was an integral part of the Harold Washington Cultural Center construction as Chairman of Tobacco Road, Inc.
Chuck Barksdale, a founding member of The Dells, mourned the lost of his long-time friend. “Not only was Otis a class act, he was a friend of our family,” Barksdale said. “His daughter, Ronda Tankson is a wonderful person who took great care of her father. We loved him – every one of the Dells. We used to sit down and have great conversations like men do. He would always sing, When The Gates Swing Open…now, the gates have swung open for him.”
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