Hall of fame rhythm and blues artist Otis Clay, who scored a string of hits with Memphis-based Hi Records in the early 1970s, died Friday. He was 73.
The Mississippi-born Clay — whose gruff, tenor-tinged voice on blues songs such as “Trying to Live My Life Without You” varied from his haunting but hopeful baritone on gospel standards like “When the Gates Swing Open” — died suddenly of a heart attack at 6:30 p.m., said his daughter, Ronda Tankson.
The one-time Grammy nominee had a year of touring planned behind recent records and recognition at May’s 37th Blues Music Awards, manager Miki Mulvehill said. Clay is nominated for Soul-Blues Male Artist and Soul-Blues Album for “This Time for Real,” his collaboration with Billy Price.
“Otis was the last standard-bearer for deep southern soul music, the really gospel-inflected music that was in its heyday in the late ’60s and early and mid ’70s,” Price told The Associated Press on Saturday. “These styles change, and different styles are in the forefront, but Otis was just as strong in the past five years … For that reason, he was an icon for a lot of us who work in this genre.”
European music enthusiasts and record-collectors flock to Clay’s music because of its spare, “unvarnished” style wrought of the 1960s soul scenes in Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Price said.
A 2013 Blues Hall of Fame inductee who moved to blues-steeped Chicago in 1957, Clay had just begun planning a gospel tour of the U.S., followed by a summer European tour and, later, the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise, Mulvehill said. His latest album is called, “Truth Is.”
But Clay was much more than a talented musician. A resident of Chicago’s West Side, he was an avid humanitarian whose charitable works included assisting development of the Harold Washington Cultural Center.
Clay’s Memphis connection traces to the early 1970s, when he signed to producer Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records label.
“It was during those years where Memphis became a second home for me,” Clay said in a 2015 interview with The Commercial Appeal.
Signing to Hi in 1971, Clay arrived just as things were heating up with the company. Mitchell had perfected his Royal Studios setup and fashioned a deeply connected house band in Hi Rhythm, and he had a team of skilled songwriters coming up with material, and a growing stable of stars in Al Green and Ann Peebles.
The chemistry between Clay, Mitchell and the musicians at Hi — including the Hodges brothers — was there from the start.
“It was almost like an instant thing because we all were so compatible,” said Clay, who continued to work with the Hodgeses and other Hi players until his passing. “We were close in the studio and out of the studio. It was just like a big family thing.”
During the past couple of years, Clay had been making appearances on behalf of the documentary “Take Me to the River.” The Martin Shore-directed made-in-Memphis film stars a collection of R&B veterans (including Clay, Booker T. Jones, William Bell, Mavis Staples and Bobby “Blue” Bland) and latter-day disciples from the worlds of rap, rock and hip-hop (Snoop Dogg, Yo Gotti, North Mississippi Allstars). The film captured a series of performances pairing these artists from different generations and genres.
Clay performed with the “River” group at film festivals in the U.S. and Europe as well as in Memphis at the Levitt Shell. His last Memphis performance came in September as he headlined the Cooper Young Festival; the show paired him with the students of the Stax Music Academy band.
“I like working with the youth,” Clay said. “(It’s a) wonderful thing, because you see that connection between generations through music. There’s nothing like it.”
- February, 11, 1942
- Waxhaw, Mississippi
- January, 08, 2016
- Chicago, Illinois
Cause of Death
- Heart attack
- Oak Woods Cemetery
- Chicago, Illinois