Remembering Otis Clay, A Blues Hall Of Fame Musician
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember soul singer Otis Clay. He died Friday of a heart attack. He was 73. Clay was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2013. He collaborated on an album with Billy Price that was released last year. Clay grew up in Mississippi and spent most of his adult life in Chicago. He got his start singing gospel music. From 1968 to '74, Clay recorded on the Memphis-based soul label Hi Records, which was famous for its recordings by Al Green, Syl Johnson, O. V. Wright and Ann Peebles. When I spoke with Clay in 1999, he had just released a CD that reunited him with Hi Record producer Willie Mitchell and members of the Hi Rhythm Section. Before we hear my interview, let's listen to Clay's most popular Hi recording, "Trying To Live My Life Without You," which was released in 1972 and was covered by Bob Seger in 1981.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRYING TO LIVE MY LIFE WITHOUT YOU")
OTIS CLAY: (Singing) I used to smoke five packs of cigarettes a day. It was the hardest thing to put them away. I drank four or five bottles of wine. I kept a glass in my hand all the time. Oh, breakin' those habits was hard to do, but nothing compared to the changes that you put me through. Trying to live my life without you, baby, it's the hardest thing I'll ever do. Trying to forget the love we once shared, it's the hardest burden I'll ever bear. Oh, baby.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GROSS: I'd like to hear a little bit about your early days. Would you describe for us where you grew up in Waxhaw in the Mississippi Delta?
CLAY: Waxhaw's a junction. You know, there's nothing there anymore. It was a general store. And we were farmers, my family. I came from a big family, 10 of us. And I'm the youngest of 10. So it was, you know, church on Sunday, of course and sometimes during the week, and a lot of singing in the family because in my family, being in the church and everything, you had musicians and choir members. And my grandfather was a minister. So you had all these kind of things happening around the house all the time.
GROSS: And what did your family farm?
CLAY: Cotton, corn, soybeans, things like that.
GROSS: Did you work in the fields?
CLAY: Yeah - didn't like it, but I did (laughter) - had to.
CLAY: Did the family sing in the fields? And if so, what were the songs that you liked to sing then?
CLAY: Oh, yeah, yeah. There were a lot of things. We didn't - the thing about that is during that time, we had to sing spirituals. We weren't allowed to sing secular music. Although, I was very familiar with it. I was hearing a lot of it. But we weren't allowed to sing it, especially if our parent was around. We could do it when we were, you know, when we were by ourselves, you know. We could sing all the things that we wanted to. But the parents didn't allow us to sing anything other than gospel music.
GROSS: So here you are, growing up the Mississippi Delta, which is one of the most important places for the blues. And you're not supposed to be listening to or singing secular music. Did the blues seem to be dangerous to you, to live up to its reputation as the devil's music?
CLAY: Well, yeah, that's what it was. You know, it was the devil's music. You know, you sang the blues, you going to go to hell. You know, plus, you'd probably get a whooping along with it (laughter).
GROSS: That's right (laughter) more immediately.
GROSS: Did you have a way of hearing the blues?
CLAY: Well, yeah, you know, we were listening to WLAC at night, out of Nashville. And you could get all these grand sales that they would have coming out of Ernie's Record Mart and all those places where you could get five songs for - oh, I forget what the price was. But it was very, you know, nothing like today. You know, you get this package deal, you know, this soul special and this gospel special. You know, and we would mail order a lot of that stuff out of Nashville from Ernie's Records.
GROSS: What if your parents saw it when it came in the mail?
CLAY: Well, the parents, they knew very well all the things that was happening there, you know. But again, we weren't allowed to - weren't allowed to sing blues or secular music - period.
GROSS: You mean you were allowed to listen but not to sing?
CLAY: Yeah, we could listen, yeah.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
CLAY: Because my family - you've heard of the old Saturday night fish fry. Well, although my mother - my mother - well, you have to understand. First of all, my mother was very religious. And my father was a gambler. Now, put that together and see what you come up with. But that's what - that's the way it was. And most of the time on weekends and things like that, you know, they would have - well, there was a lot - quite a bit of bootleg, you know, moonshine-ing going on too. And at night on these weekends they would have this fish fry. And they would have chitlins (ph) and all these things. And they would sell, and a lot of people would come around. And that's how you heard - the children, you know, we would be at all these gatherings. And we would hear what the grown folks were doing. But we weren't allowed to do it.
GROSS: Would your father go to church on Sundays and repent on Sunday for the gambling he did during the week?
CLAY: No (laughter). No, he would - most of the time he was recovering from the night before.
CLAY: No, you know, but, yeah, occasionally, you know, he would - but that was so rare, you know. It was acceptable. It was a known fact there that was somewhat to - you know how the man, the male, you know, they were always doing some things that they should've been repenting for, you know.
GROSS: Now, you toured with several different gospel groups in the '50s and in the '60s. I have one example here of your gospel singing. And it's wonderful, so thought I would play it. And it's with The Gospel Songbirds. This was recorded in 1963.
CLAY: Oh, wow (laughter).
GROSS: (Laughter). And the song is, "If I Could Hear My Mother." And I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit about this group, The Gospel Songbirds.
CLAY: The sad part is with that CD, most of them have passed on now. And it really saddens me when I listen to that because we had a great time together. You know, these groups were like family, brothers - you know what I mean? - extension of the family. And we really, truly loved each other. And I was with that group for quite a few years. That was the last local group that I sang with before I went with the Sensational Nightingales. The Gospel Songbirds, we were quite a group. If you can - when you listen - I have this CD. And when I listen to it, I say, hey, we were pretty good.
GROSS: Yes (laughter), I agree. So let's hear it. This is you singing lead, "If I Could Hear My Mother."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I COULD HEAR MY MOTHER")
CLAY AND THE GOSPEL SONGBIRDS: (Singing) I believe. I'll testify. Lord have mercy while I have a chance. The reason why I like to leave my testimony with you, I may not ever see you again. But before I go, I'd like to sing my favorite song. And it goes something like this. How sweet and happy (unintelligible). Lord have mercy. And I can hear the memories calling every now and then. Oh, when the (unintelligible) oh where my weary heart would be if only I could hear my mother pray again. Oh, Lord, have mercy. Sometimes at midnight she used to - she used to pray.
GROSS: That was Otis Clay singing lead, recorded I believe in about 1963, The Gospel Songbirds. Otis Clay is now best known as a soul singer. Now, I believe when you first started to record secular music you cut a few singles for Columbia Records. But those singles weren't released. And when they weren't released, my understanding is that you hid them from your friends who sang gospel music 'cause you didn't want them to know. Why not?
CLAY: Well, we come back to that decision again. You know, I had my little popularity as a gospel singer, you know. And you had enough people talking. So that was one time I didn't brag about it, you know. And I'm really glad that I didn't because it was never released. And that would've really given them something to talk about. You know, and again, I just kept it a secret.
GROSS: Would they have been angry at you or feel that you couldn't sing with them anymore if they knew about those records?
CLAY: Oh, of course. You know, at that time, it wouldn't have been acceptable. You know, now people are a bit more broad-minded. But at that time, I wouldn't have been able to remain in the group, after - especially once they released the secular.
GROSS: What do you think is your greatest record? Do you have any?
CLAY: Oh, wow. You know, we were talking about that. Someone asked me that question. There was a record that I recorded and after - I recorded it several times. It was called, "If I Could Reach Out And Help Somebody." I recorded it first for Hi in 1973. And then I recorded it on a - the first live Japan album. And then it's also on the gospel album too. So there are about three versions of it out there.
GROSS: Why don't we hear the first version of it, the Hi Records version of it? And before we play it, I'd like to know what it is about this song that gets you to single it out as being the best.
CLAY: Well, this song - the spiritual side of it, the charitable side of it, and I generally - I genuinely feel that way. You always want to make a difference in the world if there's something that you can do, something - you can help someone along the way. We try to do as much charity as possible, you know, because we realize that we're blessed. And we'd like to pass that on. I think that that's our duty. We are our brother's keeper.
GROSS: OK, well, this is "If I Could Reach Out And Help Somebody," sung by Otis Clay from the '70s.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I COULD REACH OUT AND HELP SOMEBODY")
CLAY: (Singing) Sometimes I get so depressed, y'all. Seems things won't go my way. But if I could reach out and help somebody, then I've had a good day. If I could help some sister or brother, show a little love once a month. If I could reach out and help somebody, then I've had a good day.
GROSS: My interview with Otis Clay was recorded in 1999. He died Friday at age 73. After we take a short break, our linguist Geoff Nunberg will tell us about the word he chose as the 2015 word of the year. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.