Otis Clay has worked the international gospel and rhythm and blues circuit for more than half a century. He turned 70 last year but avoids terms like stamina when asked about his professional endurance. That makes sense. During an afternoon conversation at his recording studio on Chicago's West Side, he emphasizes revival, and not just for himself.
The focus of Clay's newfound energy is his recent disc, "Truth Is," which he issued on his own label, Echo. For this recording, he brought together an all-star team of Chicago soul veterans, including arranger Thomas "Tom Tom" Washington and saxophonists Gene Barge and Willie Henderson. Clay says the intention is to rally this ensemble to present its take on classic R&B for new audiences.
"This is more than an album for all of these guys," Clay said. "It's saying, 'We're still here; we still know what we're doing, so we're doing it.' We're jumping on this music with a vengeance."
Though Clay made his name during the 1960s and '70s as a solo act, he sang before that in gospel quartets — like the Sensational Nightingales — where group dynamics were as crucial as individual expression. Even though Clay crossed over from church songs to soul in the early 1960s, he never abandoned those roots and released the religious-themed "Walk a Mile in My Shoes" disc five years ago. Clay was also a longtime friend of the late gospel legend Inez Andrews.
"When you think of emotion and wrecking a house, you think of Inez," Clay said. "She also had a sense of humor that was unbelievable."
Clay says that when he began performing R&B, local label One-derful provided a family environment as much as it served as a guide through the sometimes beneficial, occasionally shady, aspects of the business. As a small operation, with only a two-track recording studio, One-derful offered Clay the ideal format for his rough, hard soul on such driving singles as "That's How It Is." He stresses that artists on Chicago's Record Row of independent companies simply did not feel constrained by categories.
"We were just doing music," Clay said. "If a song came out hard, that's just the way the song was. We might come back with a ballad."
A few years after the demise of One-derful in the late 1960s, Clay signed with the Memphis-based Hi Records. Clay's albums on Hi feature his plaintive vocals layered on top of engrossing midtempo grooves, which drummer Howard Grimes anchored. (Clay is a guest vocalist with Grimes' current group, The Bo-Keys.) Producer Willie Mitchell also let Clay know when to hold back.
"People had been telling me all my life, 'That boy can really sing,'" Clay said. "And Willie said, 'Well, that's nice, but that don't really mean much. When you know how to sing, then that's a whole 'nother class in itself.'"
Disco threatened to make such training obsolete, but Clay avoided being trapped in that era's rhythmic monotony. He became popular in Japan and has toured there regularly since 1978. When Clay started Echo in 1975, he took control of his own masters.
The singer has also always found fulfillment working for such community-based organizations as People For New Direction, which provides educational opportunities for children on the West Side.
"I travel all over the world, and there are some children who never leave their neighborhoods," Clay said. "So we send them to museums. We want to expose them to a lot of things that keep them away from getting into trouble."
A sense of urgency runs throughout Clay's musical and social activism, and he insists that his zeal should be universal.
"When you can do something to make a difference, you do it. What does it take? Time? Well, God gave you the time; you're going to be here — do it."
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