So far 2016 has been pretty brutal when it comes to important musicians dying: Paul Bley, Pierre Boulez, David Bowie. On Friday one of Chicago’s greatest soul and gospel singers, Otis Clay, suffered a fatal heart attack at age 73. The Mississippi native got his start singing gospel, and his gritty, expressive hard-soul style conveyed inextricable links to the church. Clay achieved some of his most lasting fame in the early 70s, working with Memphis institution Hi Records, for which he waxed indelible hits such as “Trying to Live My Life Without You.”
When tastes in soul and R&B moved toward a slicker, disco-influenced sound in the late 70s, Clay kept doing what he knew, alternating between hard soul and gospel—he excelled for decades as an exponent of that classic style. As time passed, his stature grew as more and more people recognized him as the genuine article. The range of his voice, equal parts raspy and creamy, diminished over time, but his knack for phrasing and his emotional power never did. And he was a prince of a man—kind, generous, and thoughtful. I interviewed him once, in 1998, after he made This Time Around, an album that reconnected him with Hi producer Willie Mitchell, and he was warm, modest, and unaffected.
For today’s 12 O’Clock Track, I’m posting one of Clay’s greatest performances, from 1967, when he was cutting records for Chicago soul imprint One-derful! No matter how many times I hear “That’s How It Is,” the opening lines (“Please, somebody take your hand and slap some sense in me / Open my eyes cause I’m too blind to see”) still pack a wallop, capturing the brain-addling effects of unrequited love with uncanny precision.
Mary J. Blige, The London Sessions (Capitol)
Martin Bresnick, Prayers Remain Forever (Starkland)
Baloni, Belleke (Clean Feed)
Jeremy Udden & Nicolas Moreaux, Belleville Project (Sunnyside)
Honsinger/Beresford/Toop/Kondo, Imitation of Life/Double Indemnity (Unheard Music Series/Y)