Today’s SotW was penned by Michael Paquette. Michael has been a friend since my post-grad years in Boston, many years ago. A long-time blues aficionado, today he gives us a history lesson about the great Otis Spann.
Traditional Chicago blues and Mississippi Delta Blues are a major part of the fabric of American music. This music is the main influence for much of American jazz and early rock and roll as well as a huge influence on the first wave of British musicians including the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Eric Burdon, and some early Beatles’ works as well. The artist featured in this post was a major contributor to both blues styles in his short lifetime.
Otis Spann was born in Belzoni (some sources say Jackson), Mississippi in 1924 (some sources say 1930). He began playing the piano at a very early age. His mother played the guitar and his father was a pianist but Otis got his inspiration from local piano players Coot Davis and Friday Ford. When he was eight years old he won a piano contest at the Alamo Theatre in Jackson and began playing with local groups in Jackson.
After his mother died in 1947 he moved to Chicago and worked as a plasterer during the day while performing at the Tic Toc Lounge at night. He was mentored by Big Maceo and after Maceo suffered a heart attack he assisted him at the piano, playing the left-handed parts.
Otis served a brief stint in the Army and then joined Muddy Waters in his seminal band which would become the group that brought traditional Chicago blues to mainstream America. With guitar player Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter, it was, without exaggeration, the best band that Muddy ever had and probably the greatest assemblage of blues musicians in one band to the present day. Otis would go on to play alongside numerous other artists including Chuck Berry, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy, Walter Horton, Johnny Martin, Jr. Wells, and Johnny Shines. In the 1960s Otis began making records under his own name. His warm and hoarse voice blends beautifully with his melancholic style, learned from Big Maceo. The song I have chosen is from his first solo release in 1960. Teaming with Robert Lockwood, Jr. this song is a fine example of the wonderful and sultry duets they performed together.
Robert Lockwood, Jr. was strongly influenced by his stepfather Robert Johnson who is often considered the Father of the Blues and a huge influence on Eric Clapton. Lockwood was born in Arkansas in 1915 and played alongside B. B. King and Sonny Boy Williamson among others and then joined Otis as a staff musician for Chess Records. This team of artists blended beautifully together and they display a melding of Delta and Chicago blues that is unmatched.
Otis Spann was an artist who was described as a somewhat weary and sad-eyed man who was only happy when he was drinking or playing the piano. Yet he was a friendly man and well-liked by his fellow musicians. His drinking got the best of him and he died in 1970 of liver failure. He left behind a legacy of blues piano that is part of the lexicon of a black music tradition that today is nearly extinct from the contemporary music scene. But these recordings remain an influence on such artists as Kingfish Ingram, Derek Trucks, Gary Clark, Jr., Jonny Lang, and Samantha Fish among others.
As Muddy Waters said of Otis Spann:
“He knew my music better than any man alive. There is no one left like him who played real, solid bottom blues like he did. We’d better raise another before it’s too late.”
Enjoy… until next week.