Hi and Mighty

Last year a whole new generation was exposed to the singular and magical sound of Hi Records in a matter of seconds: in her hit “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott swiped a brief but key line from Ann Peebles’s classic “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” renewing its killer-hook status more than two decades after it swept Peebles onto the charts. While Al Green remains the most famous Hi artist, all of the singers on the Memphis label, including O.V. Wright and Chicagoans Otis Clay and Syl Johnson, helped house producer Willie Mitchell develop an instantly recognizable sound. Hi’s output from the 70s represents the final days of the golden era of regional soul music.

These days many of Hi’s key figures are still active, but most have never been able to achieve on their own the brilliance they wrought together. With his new album, This Time Around (Bullseye Blues), Otis Clay has tried to recapture the Hi vibe, reuniting not only with most of the great rhythm players that graced those old recordings–including bassist Leroy Hodges, organist Charles Hodges, and drummer Howard Grimes–but also with Mitchell. “We’re just saying, ‘Hey, we’re still here,'” says Clay. “You look around and you see that so many have gone on, and we just enjoy the fact that we’re still around and able to make music.”

Clay, 56, has been making music for most of his life. At 15, not long after his family moved to Chicago from Waxhaw, Mississippi, he joined the Blue Jay Quartet of Birmingham, a harmony group whose repertoire included both gospel and pop–a duality that would stay with Clay over the next four decades. He worked with a number of different gospel groups in the late 50s and early 60s; then in 1965 he was signed by the Chicago soul label One-derful, where he scored numerous local hits as well as a minor national one in “That’s How It Is,” which is reprised on the new album. When the company folded in 1968, Clay’s contract was sold to the Atlantic subsidiary Cotillion. His final record under that agreement was made in Memphis in 1971 with up-and-coming producer Mitchell, who was so taken with the singer that he signed him to the new Hi label.

Under Mitchell’s direction the Hi house band wove remarkably silky, sensuous grooves, accenting them with punchy horn charts and the occasional string arrangement. The producer knew how to bring out the best in each singer, whether it was Green’s heavenly croon or Clay’s raw gospel-style shouts. Clay recalls his stint with Hi as a family experience. “When you got in there you didn’t have to look at a clock,” he says. “You didn’t have to pass by a receptionist. You came to work. Everybody liked each other. There was no friction, no egos, and Willie made you feel real comfortable. Everybody had creative input.” Clay’s biggest hit at the label was “Trying to Live My Life Without You,” which reached number 24 on the R & B chart in 1972–Bob Seger’s cover version took it to fifth on the pop charts in ’81. But his two Hi albums and countless singles are all classics for the way Clay’s plaintive tones played off the urbane arrangements–he could phrase his lines like casual conversation and yet move you to tears.

Clay has recorded only sporadically over the last two decades, concentrating instead on live performances. He was long one of the most dependable fixtures on the local blues scene, although he plays in town only five or six times a year now. His Soul Man: Live in Japan, a 1983 concert released by Bullseye Blues in 1991, perfectly encapsulates the central dichotomy of his career: on the Tokyo stage, he sounds darn near unbeatable, but his reluctance to spend time in the studio confines him to the margins at home, where a soul hit that isn’t built on samples and drum programs is exceedingly rare.

In soul’s heyday, a singer’s every utterance was inextricable from the groove his band was laying down; today’s singers react to a pulse rather than providing it. “Everything seems manufactured today,” says Clay. “I force myself to listen to contemporary stuff but haven’t found much happening. They always say you can’t argue with success, but I do argue when I hear what’s successful. When I listen to Boyz II Men I can’t tell their voices apart. There’s a sameness to everything.”

Clay’s own voice sounds better than ever on This Time Around. His singing is at its most refined; he only raises the roof when he’s got a point to drive home. “Willie thinks I sound younger on the new record,” Clay admits. “Even I cringe sometimes when I listen to things I did in the 60s and 70s.” Clay has chosen to sing almost all new tunes, sidestepping the safer nostalgic route, but he sticks to his stylistic guns, refusing to dabble in Puff Daddy puffery. Some of the tunes are rather banal, but the pleading, smoldering “Somebody Help” and the stomping “Don’t You Know Baby” are two of his best ever. Overall the reunion with Mitchell doesn’t attain the heights the pair hit at Hi, mostly because Mitchell now favors high-tech polish over Hi’s primitive fire.

Clay is gearing up for extensive touring in the U.S. and Europe, as well as in Japan, where he still maintains a huge fan base, but he’s also been busy serving as chairman of the board for Tobacco Road, the organization behind a development going up around the former site of the Regal Theater at 47th and King Drive. Construction on the Lou Rawls Theater is set to begin this month; the plans also call for a music museum, a skating rink, and stores and restaurants.


If you’re still not sure what the hell drum ‘n’ bass is, you might want to listen to “Dubshack’s Drum & Bass Radio,” which premieres Friday at midnight on WCBR (92.7 FM). The two-hour program is hosted by local jungle promoter Scott Manion, the fellow behind the monthly Brockout! nights at Liar’s Club. This week’s guest spinners are Phantom 45 and DJ 3D.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Marc PoKempner.