Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
January 15, 2011
By Linda Cain
photos: Harvey Tillis
photos: Harvey Tillis
Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Johnnie Taylor, Tyrone Davis… the list goes on, of the master soul singers who have left us. Thankfully Otis Clay is still here; he’s one of the greats, an American treasure, who is celebrating his 50th year in the music business and still going strong. At age 68, he’s in fine shape both physically and vocally. Not only does Otis dance vigorously on stage, but he can really work out vocally, too. Otis possesses that rare, emotion-packed voice can move you to tears or leave you grinning. Like the title of his famous song, Otis can “take you to heaven tonight.”
Known for his gritty, powerful and gospel-infused vocals -- not to mention charisma and showmanship -- in both sacred and secular fields of music, Clay brought Memphis soul, Chicago R&B and contemporary gospel to a sold out show at Evanston’s SPACE music room
Clay’s versatile, fine and funky six-piece band -- drums, bass, two guitars, keyboards, trombone and trumpet -- opened the show with a mostly instrumental number, “Pass the Peas”. Trombonist “Honeyboy” asked the crowd to call Otis to the stage, and he strolled through the crowd, accompanied by two lovely female backup singers to chants of “Otis, Otis, Otis.”
The first two songs, “When I Say That I Love You” which segued into “You’re The One That I Choose,” were upbeat R&B numbers enhanced by the ladies’ heavenly harmonies and smooth moves, especially their graceful hand movements that helped tell the story.
The third song was a sad, melodic Otis Redding-style number, “When Hearts Grow Cold,” which started out slow but built to a crescendo with a dramatic end, with Otis singing and pleading, as the band held back. Ladies in the crowd squealed as Otis begged “I don’t want to lose you.”
There’s nothing like old school soul to tug on your heart strings!
It was back to danceable, Memphis R&B with the classic “Nickel and a Nail” which featured an otherworldly guitar solo from Hollywood Scott, who created odd squeaks and squawks on his B&W polka dot Fender, as Otis and the band danced in unison.
Otis continued the Memphis vibe with “I Get Lonely” as he named his compadres from that town (Otis Redding, Albert King) and his hometown (Tyrone Davis, Johnnie Taylor) who are no longer with us. He also gave a shout out to fellow soul man Lou Pride, who was in the house for the first set.
“I Can Take You To Heaven Tonight,” another of his hits, was sung with passion and emotion; Otis meant every word as he romanced the lady in the song. He asked the crowd to sing along, and they gladly obliged.
His 2007 Grammy nominated “Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” was given a righteous reading, followed by a sermonette on the need for peace, love and tolerance in the world in the wake of recent events in Tucson, AZ. He merged back into the gospel number for a dramatic ending.
The bass player kicked into the instantly recognizable rhythms of “Midnight Hour” that got the crowd either up and dancing or grooving in their seats. Otis got down with soul screams, wove into another tune, “I’m Qualified,” then back into “Midnight.” Without missing a beat, he got the entire crowd on its feet, hands in the air, singing along for “Raise Your Hand”.
It was an exhilarating finish to a 90-minute set that just breezed by. A look at the watch said 9:30 p.m. Would there be a second set? After the band left the stage and the crowd milled about, an announcement was made: “There will be another set!”
Otis, who had changed his outfit, returned at 10 p.m. and delivered an hour-long Part 2 that was even more dynamic than the first set.
Al Green’s “Here I Am Baby” was followed by a gospel tune (“I have to redeem myself,” he quipped) with the uplifting “Reach Out And Help Somebody.”
Then it was back to the secular, as the singer joked with the menfolk
about getting caught doing wrong, until everyone was laughing.
Otis gave the advice, “If you tell a lie, stick with it” to
introduce the song “It Sure Wasn’t Me.”
The band softly played the familiar intro to “Dock of the Bay” as Otis turned the band into a choir to sing a brief gospel medley of “Amen” and “This Little Light” in glorious six-part harmony. He shifted gears and began the lyrics for “Dock”: “Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun…”
The audience clapped and sang along throughout the beloved Otis Redding hit. Clay beckoned all the whistlers in the house to help finish the song, and they did so with gusto, right on key. Otis tried to whistle, but couldn’t because he was laughing too much.
The singer turned serious as he recalled seeing a young Sam Cooke perform gospel music at DuSable High on Chicago’s South Side. Otis sang Cooke’s civil rights ode, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” with the solemn poignancy that only a true gospel soul man can do.
Otis took us back to Memphis, in 1972 with his biggest hit “Trying to Life My Life Without You.” That song merged into an extended “Take Me ToThe River” with Otis giving it a few false endings and then onto a big dramatic finish to both the song and the show.
There wasn’t a soul that walked out of SPACE that night who didn’t have a big smile on their face and a feeling that they’d shared a special, communal experience.
It’s shows like this, and authentic performers like Otis Clay, that keep soul, R&B and soul-gospel music moving forward into the millennium. Young neo-soul and retro-R&B bands are putting their own modern spin on music from the ‘60s and ‘70s. But there’s nothing like the real thing, so don’t miss Otis Clay the next time he performs. Let’s hope it will be a long time before he retires.