David Bowie died this week. He had been fighting cancer for 18 months, but very few people knew about his struggle. Last week, on his 69th birthday, he released a stunning, adventurous new album called Blackstar. Just as people were digging into it, word came that Bowie had died, and suddenly the lyrics on the album had a whole new meaning. It soon became clear that David Bowie had found a way to say goodbye to the world.
Bowie died as he had lived, an artist to the end. He was an influence on generations of musicians as he explored a wide variety of musical styles that included soul, funk, and R&B. I only got to see him once. It was on the “Isolar” tour at Madison Square Garden in 1976. He was the Thin White Duke in those days, and the show, which was played out completely under white lights, was unforgettable. I always hoped that I would have another chance to see his live show, but after Bowie had a heart attack a few years ago he stopped performing. Still, there was the hope that he would return to the road one day. I never did get to see him again, but one day I will. The word ‘artist’ is overused, but it could not be more appropriate when used to describe David Bowie’s life and work. Rest in peace.
In all of the pain and confusion that surrounded Bowie’s death it was easy to forget that we lost another great musician last week. The superb R&B singer Otis Clay died in Chicago at the age of 73. Clay was born in Mississippi, and was part of the black diaspora when his family headed north in search of a better life. They ended up in Muncie, Indiana where Otis began singing in gospel groups. At one point he returned to Mississippi to sing with the Christian Travelers, but by 1957 he had settled in Chicago.
For the next five years Otis sang with gospel groups like the Golden Jubilaires, the Famous Blue Jay Singers, the Holy Wonders, and the Pilgrim Harmonizers. By 1962 he was ready to move into the secular realm. His early recordings didn’t sell, and Otis returned to gospel, singing with the Gospel Songbirds, and the Sensational Nightingales.
Otis was still interested in singing secular music, and in 1965 he signed with the One-derful! label. There he recorded several soul records that were tinged with his gospel background. His first hit came in 1967 with “That’s How it Is (When You’re in Love),” which reached #34 on the R&B chart. The follow-up single, “A Lasting Love,” made it to #48.
One-derful wasn’t wonderful enough though, and when the label folded, Atlantic Records bought Otis’ contract. They sent him to Muscle Shoals to record for their new Cotillion imprint. A cover of the Sir Douglas Quintet hit “She’s About a Mover” was the first Cotillion single for Otis, and it found its way into the Billboard Hot 100. Unfortunately, follow-up singles like “Hard Working Woman,” and “Is it Over” didn’t do as well, despite production by Syl Johnson on the former, and Willie Mitchell on the latter.
The relationship with Mitchell continued, however, when Otis moved to Mitchell’s Hi Records in 1971. A year later, Otis had his biggest hit for the label. “Trying to Live My Life Without You” made it to #102 on the Billboard Bubbling Under chart, as well as #70 the Cash Box chart, and #24 on the R&B chart. The song was written by Eugene Williams, and released on Hi in December, 1972. Bob Seger’s cover version made it all the way to #5 on the pop chart in 1981.
Otis recorded several more singles and albums for Hi, but was unable to match the success of “Trying to Live My Life Without You.” Eventually he moved on to Kayvette Records. There Otis released “All Because of Your Love” in 1977. It was his final national hit, reaching #44 on the R&B chart. Otis also recorded for Elka and Rounder Records, and eventually for his own label, Echo.
Although his chart success waned, Otis continued to be a popular live attraction, particularly in Europe and Japan. He recorded three live albums, and in the ’90s there were two new studio albums for the Bullseye Blues label. One of them, This Time Around, found him back together with Willie Mitchell, who produced the album. There was one final gospel album, Walk a Mile in My Shoes, in 2007.
Otis stayed active in his west side Chicago community. He was involved with a number of cultural and economic initiatives. In 2013 Otis was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and last year he collaborated with Billy Price on the album This Time for Real.
Otis Clay died on January 8, 2016.