Otis Clay Interview in Italian Blues Magazine
Posted on March 16, 2015 in News
Interview taken from the March 2015 Il Blues Magazine.
Few artists have a voice like his, can transport the listener into a kind of emotional elsewhere. Compared to some of his contemporaries he probably missed a few hits, but his career, which began more than half a century ago, has led him to alternate with coe-ence and credibility gospel and soul. We admired in concert several times, especially (but not only) at the festival in Lucerne, where he is a crowd favorite and a co-standing presence in the years (the concert of 2003 is immortalized on CD). Last November it came time to finally meet him for an interview; the start reassured just by Otis, on the health of his rock-fonista, accasciatosi for an illness during the concert the night before.
You were born in a small town of Mississippi, Waxhaw.
Actually it was not even a country, practically a cross with a group of houses. Mine was a large family, was Vamo-nine brothers and sisters, I was the smallest, so there was always something to do. It was a simple life in the countryside, between home and in-chie knows Sundays. I started just to church to sing. We listened to the radio, there were parec-chie stations, black and white, music diver-if, gospel, blues, and country but also we-stern. Especially on Saturday night listening-Vamo the Grand Ole Opry, I know many many-artists and all their songs, still listening to all, irrespective of the kind I always find something interesting.
Then there trasferiste in Chicago?
No, before we moved to Muncie, Indiana, for a time, there lived my sister and we still have many relatives there. In Chicago there lived the grandfather and uncle, so it was only a matter of time before they rag-giungessimo. These were the years of the great migration and Chicago was one of the most frequent. At the time we did not think absolutely the music scene, indeed to tell the truth despite chants always, I never thought about a career as a singer. It just happened.
How did you start singing gospel?
It was a natural thing. The gospel is at the root of a lot of music, and we grew up in the church, that was the place where we find ourselves. I sang with members of my family, in 1953 I remember that my mother, my sister, a brother and someone else, we were called The Morning Glories. Already twelve sang with other groups, that happened in the city. Then a few years later I joined Golden Jubilaires, I was about fifteen.
Sang with them in Chicago?
Yes, even in Chicago, but in fact the group was from a small town in Missouri, Mober-ly. Sang in various cities, traveling pa-appliance, sometimes in a sort of package with other groups. It was not known bands. Only some time later the Soul Stirrers, with whom then I sang too, the Dixie Humming-birds, the Sensational Nightingales, Swanee Quintet …
Then didst pass with Famous Blue Jay Singers?
I was eighteen and they were a group stated. It ‘was my first experience at a professional level, I joined them in 1960. A few years later, a bit as did Sam Cooke, you went from singing sacred music in the secular. The difference in my path is represented by the experience with the Blue Jay, who prepared me in a way to leave the world of gospel music. We were a group of jubilee, but it really did not only sacred music in the repertoire we also had many pieces that define the variety. By itself jubilee is a type of music that looks a bit to rap, is built more on the pace but there are clear similarities.
How did the transition from singing in a group to do it solo?
When I was part of the Pilgrim Harmonizers, I went to a hearing organized by my friend Cash McCall, was at the headquarters of the King, in fact there were Sonny Thompson and other manufacturers. One of them in the end I came up and said he was interested in me sing secular music, left me a business card and said he would call me.
Your first solo recordings were for the One-derful! George Leaner?
No, actually I had recorded some pieces for Columbia but were never published. Then, in fact, I came to the One-derful !, which published my first records.
“That’s How It Is” became a hit.
Yes, but came later, in 1967, I began to registrate for them towards the end of 1964. Among other things now Secret Stash of Minneapolis, has undertaken a series of reissues of various labels Leaner, not only the One-Derful!, very comfortable and with several unpublished.
How was listen to the material after all these years?
It was very interesting, even for me who those years I have lived, almost surprising in some ways. I never thought that much of the material was still so good. I think for someone who is not familiar with those recordings, they can be really a revelation.
How do you remember the scene in the soul of Chicago in those years? There were artists such as Tyrone Davis, McKinley Mitchell …
They were good times for the music and the musical, very exciting, very creative. There were people like Tyrone Davis, Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler, Curtis Mayfield … we are all the same and each generation has become an artist with a distinct personality-for, grown in the same period. Then there was the scene of Memphis and that of Detroit, Motown … were the early stages. He was a fervent period, even competitive, where everyone was trying to bring out the best from himself to be up to the other. There was always a connection with the past, as I see it, although there was talk of new faces-ca, soul, music that originated in part from the gospel, especially from quartets and doo-wop. In this sense there are musicians leader, who paved the way.
Are you referring to anyone in particular?
Well, listen R. H. Harris’s first solo of the Soul Stirrers, has been a huge influence for many of us. And then some Sam Cooke! And yet the brothers Crume; Leroy among other good love my co-died a few weeks ago. Unlike perhaps other cities the gospel in Chicago was an-cora very popular and held in high consideration. Then of course if you went for example in Philadelphia were the Dixie Hummingbirds, but were from South Carolina. The fact that the gospel was so popular, it also resulted in soul music and in its structure.
What was the difference between what you felt then Motown, the scene of one of Chicago and Memphis.
Motown beginning also operated in Chicago, Smokey Robinson recorded “Shop Around” and a few other pieces in Chicago. The music was different, but in the end it was not so much. Then there was an aspect of local, regional, also in search of new talent, everyone was trying to take advantage of the local scene, Chicago or Detroit. From my point of view, the purpose of each was to develop its own sound, leave their own imprint. Still is what I try to do it myself, the sound is my main interest. The first thing I want to know when I produce a record is like playing drums, then from there, from that base, I build everything else. A Memphis did the same. Additionally there and also in Muscle Shoals, more than elsewhere, there was a lot of interaction between musicians blacks and whites, and this thing was even more significant because of all places, was done in the South. The singular fact was precisely that a large group of White sounded essentially black music; it was to create a unique blend of sound.
You mentioned Muscle Shoals, if we are not mistaken, right there registrasti “She’s About A Mover”.
Exactly. It was 1968, incidevo for Cotillion and sent me to record in Muscle Shoals. Rick Hall at the time still had the original rhythm section, but the horn section came from Memphis. Just to continue the speech a little while ago, we all knew each other and there was a lot of collaboration, the musicians spent time together and that made the music better, more creative. There were more connections than differences though, of course, you could make out what was the Motown and what was, let’s say from Memphis and Muscle Shoals, generally from the South.
Inevitably ask you about your approach to the Hi and relationship with Willie Mitchell.
I must start by saying that in my career has always been, at different times, a reference figure, someone from whom I learned and that I could turn to for advice. George Leaner, the founder of the One-derful was undoubtedly very important to me, but there were others as Odell Carter, in the gospel field since I was fifteen. Willie had already had my last session for the Cotillion was for me more than a kind of mentor, almost a father. With him, as with Leaner, the situation that was emerging was that of a family, a father giving advice to a son; has never been question business with them, but only personal, pen-sando what was best for the life of a person. Then clearly from a musical standpoint Willie taught me a lot; producer was brilliant, we talked a lot. Ave-goes a big band in the past, so he knew how to arrange, to incorporate the horns even in a small ensemble, build sound suitable for the singer by putting together different elements.
At the time there were at Hi Al Green, Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles …
There was at the very beginning, although it was still very popular, even before there was Earl Randle, singer in the band of Willie. Ann Peebles was under contract before me and Syl Johnson.
You had a piece engraved with Johnson as a producer?
Ah yes, I was still with the Atlantic / Cotillion, before Hi. A day spent in the office of Syl Johnson, he made me feel a piece, but it was not finished. He told me to go home and try to finish writing it and then proposed to record it together. And that’s what we did, the song was titled “Hard Working Woman.”
You’ve always had good bands, com-posed almost exclusively afroameri-dogs.
Ah not always! For example I had Greg Rzab, which is one of my favorite bass players.
Former bassist Buddy Guy?
Already, he left my group to go play with Guy. But I prefer to speak of good musi-cysts, regardless of skin color, counts only the music.
How did your first tour in Japan in 1978?
We did not know much about Japan, nor culture, nor that they were so passionate about our music. Perhaps there were James Brown and Wilson Pickett but otherwise we always joked about, among us musicians, saying things like “hey where did you get that microphone Japanese?” Then they came out with all this advanced technology and disproved at once the our jokes. When I arrived in Japan, and we recorded the first “Live” from the tour in 1978, I was amazed that he could-ro to record live and capture the sound of the band so well, I thought we could have that statement only in a studio. Lavoran-do with those Japanese engineers learned a lot about the methods and techniques of engraving. I think a few others had the same success regarding registrations in Japan, perhaps some jazz, but I’m not sure!
How did you manage to have the section of mica rit-Hi for the tour and the 1983 live album that was sudden?
The idea was mine and we could re-creates only thanks to the popularity that had acqui-site in Japan, there I was back for another tour in the meantime. Keep in mind that in the seventies no one could afford to re-door touring rhythm section Hi, even Al Green, who had also been hit by several million copies sold.
There is a record of all those who have engraved you think represent you better than others?
Well, I think there is a big part of me in all the music that I recorded. I can not find a genre or a disc in particular. In fact sometimes I found that a hard gospel failed to find an audience unexpectedly secular, or vice versa a hard rhythm and blues was often appreciated by those who listen gospel. The content, the kind of records that counts up at some point, probably one of the secrets of a hit is an identification mechanism that snaps the listener, regardless of gender. If a disc is diver-authority it is, although maybe it’s gospel. I believe in music functions well, if you like a song, you should not spies-garne why, you like and just. For this I do not think there is a record that describes me better than another, whether we talk about gospel that of soul / blues. Moreover one of the titles gospel for which are best known, “His Precious Love”, a piece of Leroy Crume, is actually a secular concert, that of the second live album in Japan.
You could tell how was the glue-operation with Johnny Rawls?
With Johnny have known years, we come from a background very similar.
He has played for years with O.V. Wright.
True. Even with O.V. we had a per-similar course. O.V. and I have crossed for the first time when I was sixteen and both sang gospel with him Sunset Travelers. In a sense we knew even before we met, because we attended the same environment and we had heard of each other. Then we became friends and we understood very well. I still today to meet musicians or people of my generation of the music business and find out that we knew the same people. With Johnny happens the same, we started working together talking about people we knew in the music. It all started two years ago when he recorded “Remembering OV Wright”, had invited me to sing a few pieces and then things continued until a new collaboration, “Soul Brothers.”
What prompted you to create your own label, Echo?
It was 1975 and I had a contract with no label, so almost in spite of myself, I decided to found my own. It was not a planned choice, but I have to say that it worked and eventually allowed me to have more freedom. Sometimes a label wants you to affect a certain type of material or push you in a direction you might not really want to go. Hi I was with until recently and I think the belief of being able to produce discs from me, I’ve just come to work looking closely Willie Mitchell. I just told myself that I could manage to do that, not that I wanted to rebel or try to prove to force something.
Just out of curiosity, have you ever contacted the Malaco? In those years produced several artists of soul, as Tyrone Davis, Johnnie Taylor, Bobby Bland or ZZ Hill.
With Malaco the time there was talk of publishing the first live album in Japan, that of 1978. I could give it to her license, did not cost me a lot because, with the JVC, I was co-owner of that record. But in the end nothing came of it, I think they were not entirely convinced, but also perhaps because I sang soulful gospel as “When The Gate Swing Open” and for them was not right. But I knew that the material was good and in the end I managed to get by without the same problems, even producing a second live album in 1983 without having to self-finance.
We know that you are involved in various social and community projects in Chicago.
I handled the creation dell’Harold Washington Cultural Center, a cultural center that stands where once there was the Regal Theater in the neighborhood of Bronzeville. What are organizing now a theater project to remove the children from the streets and put them on a stage, keep them out of trouble, through art often open for their unexpected perspectives. We worked through the association Tobacco Road Incorporated, rebuilt the old Regal virtually from scratch and helped to ensure that become a living center. Another project is called People For New Direction and incen-trated on community initiatives. We are also thinking of doing something related to my participation in the documentary film “Take Me To The River”, just for the look trans-generational; we would like to tour a sort of themed show. The ideal would be to engage and collaborate with artists youths, if possible in every city that speakest-oar.
So there are young soulmen Chicago or elsewhere, with whom you work?
Everything has changed compared to the past, the members-ty, music, how to produce it and commercialize it. It hard to think that music can have the same impact it had in the past. Coming to the point of young artists, well having seventy-two years a question I ask myself is this: who will carry this music when and I can not do it? For me there has always been someone whose look-kings, artists who have inspired me by their example. Today is different but the challenge is to create favorable conditions, an environment that can stimulate the emergence and growth of young musicians. This is not to teach them something old, but something right, after years of people who do not understand anything about music left only rubble of the musical.
You have in mind a few young promet-authority singer of soul?
Actually … no! But there must still be somewhere, as I said, you have to re-create the right environment and maybe we will surprise of many talents come out. At the bottom is what we try to do all’Harold Washington Center.
To ensure that the cultural heritage prose-gua.
Exactly. It’s funny that you have used pro-prio this expression, because the working title of my album a few years ago, “Walk A Mile In My Shoes”, was actually “The Legacy Continues”! In the beginning was to be a full album with the Soul Stirrers, there was wash-rando with Arthur and Leroy Crume, then for their health problems could not finish the disc; then I published in my name with a title other than that we had pen-sato together.
(Interview in Lucerne, Switzerland, November 15, 2014)
As told in the interview Otis Clay, the Secret Stash has undertaken a complete remake of the label group of brothers George and Ernie Leaner, the first volume in a double CD (or LP wanting) is dedicated appoint to the One-derful !, others will follow dedi-ed in Mar-V-Lus, Midas, Halo, M-Pac! and Toddlin ‘Town. The Leaner, African Americans re-originates Mississippi, moved to Chicago in the thirties, haunting environment musicale thanks to a record store run by his sister, also his uncle, Al Benson (real name Arthur Leaner), was one of the main DJ citizens. George became assistant to the record in the forties Lester Melrose, then head of the short adventure of Parkway which yielded the historic recordings of Baby Face Leroy Foster (see the article on “Rollin ‘& Tumblin'” in this issue) and Little Walter Trio. The next move of the brothers Leaner was the creation of the distribution company United Record Distributors, and then launch into the music market in 1962 with the first of his labels, the One-derful !. Despite Chess, Vee-Jay, King or Okeh to depart from positions of net good for your back Thu, Leaner was able to carve out a space, in the years when its labels worked, ie until 1968. The first 45 laps was suffered-to a success, peaking at no. 8 of classifications of the Billboard R & B, it was “The Town I Live In,” McKinley Mitchell.
Leaner surrounded himself collaborators of great talent, producers, writers, musicians, as Monk Higgins, Andre Williams, Cash McCall, Harold Burrage. Had sensed the opportunity to focus on short nascent scene deep soul, although then, as Clay says, not called that. The next year he found another resounding hit, perhaps unexpected, with a group of young people, the Five Du-Tones and their contagious “Shake A Tail Feather” (curium-ly Leaner in this as in other songs did enter the name of wife, Verlie Rice, one of the authors). In this selection here, which includes a dozen new songs, opens and closes the voice of Otis Clay; leave their mark its “Got To Find A Way” and “A Lasting Love”. Betty Everett who, a little later, will have a gros-so success on Vee-Jay, impresses quality interpretation in a couple of pieces “Plea-if Love Me” and especially the ballad “Your Love Is Important To Me”, recorded actually for the producer Leo Austell who sold the master Leaner. Loudly even that Lucky Laws (a cousin of bluesman Johnny Laws) which, despite the name, however, will prove to be really unlucky, is killed in a bar shortly after the publication of his only 45 laps, “Who Is She?” . That the pace duo Joe & Mack “The Prettiest Girl” and voices fem-minili, that seem to come from the home of Motown Beverly Shaffer and Liz Lands (she for the label of Barry Gordy had engraved davve-ro, the pieces One- derful are in effect unpublished).
Fans of soul, old and new, will not want to miss the opportunity to relive an era and a scene in full ferment and evolution, by listening to this material, accompanied by a nice booklet with notes of Bill Dahl on artists and beautiful archive photo. Two words finally at work enco-miabile of Secret Stash, who recovered and organized everything with the full works-tion of the heirs Leaner, putting together a project of this magnitude.