Otis Clay’s early career spanned two golden eras of modern black music—gospel in the late 50s and early 60s and deep soul in the 60s and 70s—but he didn’t stop building on his legacy when those decades had passed. His version of Joe South’s “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” the title track of a 2007 album he released on his own Echo label, was nominated for a Grammy. In 2013 he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. And this May, a few months after his death on January 8, he won two Blues Music Awards—Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year and Soul Blues Album of the Year, the latter for This Time for Real, his 2015 collaboration with Billy Price.
Born in Waxhaw, Mississippi, in 1942, Clay moved to Chicago in the mid-50s and began singing gospel with groups around town. Thanks to his muscular baritone and emotionally fraught delivery, by 1964 he’d been recruited by the nationally renowned Sensational Nightingales—even though he was already contemplating a “crossover” to secular music. He signed with the Chicago-based One-derful! label, for which he began to record in 1965. His One-derful! output is uniformly excellent, but it wasn’t until 1967’s “That’s How It Is (When You’re in Love)” that he charted nationally.
Over the next decade or so, Clay continued to chart sporadically, six times in all—the 1972 Hi Records single “Trying to Live My Life Without You,” which peaked at number 24 on the R&B charts, was his best-selling. Despite that relatively meager commercial success, though, his early sides are among the most praised in the deep-soul canon. And neither his prowess nor his commitment diminished over the years, which he proved with latter-day outings such as the aforementioned “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” “I Can Take You to Heaven Tonight,” and a torrid remake of O.V. Wright’s “A Nickel and a Nail,” as well as gospel gems such as “Sending Up My Timber,” “When the Gates Swing Open,” and his trademark “If I Could Reach Out (And Help Somebody).”
Clay continued to record and perform spiritual material until the end, and he could be fierce in his denunciation of what he saw as the moral and aesthetic corruption of modern R&B and southern soul. But he never gave up the show lounge for the pulpit: with outings such as “Steal Away to the Hideaway,” a 2011 duet with Saint Louis songstress Uvee Hayes, he showed that even the godliest soul man could strut his rakish side, as long as he did so with class and style.
Featured vocalists at this tribute set, anchored by Clay’s final working band, include his contemporary Cicero Blake and 28-year-old Theo Huff, one of the most promising (and youngest) straight-ahead soul vocalists on the contemporary scene. As a special treat, gospel legend Willie Rogers of the Soul Stirrers will make a rare appearance, providing a celebratory spiritual context in keeping with Clay’s musical and personal legacies.
The Otis Clay Tribute Band performs Saturday, June 11, at 4:15 PM on the Crossroads Stage. The lineup consists of guitarist Kenneth “Hollywood” Scott, drummer Mark Clay, bassist Joe Pratt, trumpeter Darryl Thompson, saxophonist Ernest Thomas, trombonist Fred Johnson, keyboardist Dedrick Blanchard, and singers Teresa Davis, Diana Simon, and Diane Madison. The guest vocalists are Cicero Blake, Theo Huff, New Orleans Beau, and Willie Rogers.