Presented with the task of naming your own personal all-time favourite blues pianist/vocalist, who would you plump for and why? Would you choose from the substantial legion of pre-war performers? Leroy Carr perhaps, or Roosevelt Sykes. Other choices might include Peetie Wheatstraw, Walter Davis or Curtis Jones. You might decide however, to choose from the postwar period. This would certainly give you a much wider choice. Memphis Slim, Sunnyland Slim, Little Brother Montgomery, Champion Jack Dupree, Big Maceo Merriweather, Henry Gray, Willie Mabon and so on. Now, whilst I can see merits in all of these great musicians, as in many others not even mentioned, if you were to ask me the same question - "Who is your all-time favourite blues pianist/vocalist?" - I would have the answer instantaneously. Otis Spann. Why? Well, to my mind, he had everything in place. His delivery, timing and sense of mood were quite awesome. His keyboard work was often spine chilling and deeply moving, as well as always being full of panache, excitement and colour. Never less than 'right on the money!' Whether a club, concert or studio situation, Otis Spann never failed to contribute something extraordinary to the proceedings. His phrasing and knowledge of exactly what to play and when was rarely flawed and, countless pianists who have superseded him, have listened to his many performances in an attempt to emulate his work. Few have come close. It is just not possible to improve on the original. As an accompanist Otis Spann was second to none, although there might be some who would argue a place for Johnny Johnson at the top of that tree. But for me, Otis Spann still rates number one. As a featured performer, fronting his own band, his blues drenched, husky vocals and inspiring piano virtuosity puts him, at ieast, in my humble oplnion once again, at number one. In 1964 Neil Slaven described Otis as 'King of the Blues Piano'. Forty-one years on and thirty-five years since his death. Otis Spann should surely still be considered as such. for nobody has seriously challenged for that title.
Otis Spann was born to Frank Houston Spann and Josephine Erby in Jackson, Mississippi on 21st March 1930. He was one of five children - three boys and two girls. His father played piano, although probably not professionally, whilst his mother had, at one time, played guitar with Memphis Minnie Lawlars. Otis, naturally enough, took an interest in music and in particular the mastery of the piano. To that end he was certainly helped by his father, but it would appear that his greatest inspiration was to be local pianist Friday Ford. In Paul Oliver's outstanding book "Conversation With The Blues" (Cassell, 1965) Otis recalled: "I think he was a genius and down to the present time before he died he taught me all I know. He used to take me and put me across his knee and tell me 'the reason you right here at the piano, 'cause I'm trying to make you play', but I couldn't 'cause I was too young and my fingers wasn't developed". Still at the tender age of eight, those young fingers had developed sufficiently for Spann to walk away with the first prize at a local talent contest that was held at the Alamo Theatre, in his hometown of Jackson. He performed "Four O'Clock Blues" - a song associated with Coot Davis.
In a foreword to "The Half Ain't Been Told: An Otis Spann Career Discography" (Compiled by Bill Rowe and published by Micrography/Amsterdam, 2000) Alan Balfour comments that: "The chronology of the next few years has become confused as a result of Spann's penchant for giving conflicting information in interviews." Spann recounted that he was interested in pursuing a career as a doctor and that he attended Campbell College in Jackson. In an attempt to further that goal. He played football and also took up boxing. He stated that he played professionally for the Bells Football team, after having played quarterback for the Jackson Pioneers and The Bees. In the boxing ring, he fared well, emerging unbeaten from twenty-one fights, but having both hands broken in the process. He also claimed to have enlisted in the army at the age of sixteen, serving for exactly five years, seven months and eleven days. He claimed to have spent most of his time in Japan in Camps K-6,7 and 18 followed by a short stint in Germany. By the time of his discharge, he said he had made 2nd Lieutenant. Balfour notes that Spann's death certificate states that he did serve in Korea, but such details are, apparently, often supplied by relatives and are not necessarily verified by the registering authorities. In any event, the Personnel Records Centre of the U.S. Army National Archives has been unable to locate a serviceman of that name. At this point, it might be prudent to suggest you make up your own mind as to the validity of the enlistment tale. It does, however, appear to be true that Otis Spann was playing in local bands around the Jackson area from the age of fourteen and moved to Chicago when his mother died in 1947. This information is further corroborated by fellow Chicago based musicians who remember Otis not only playing the Chicago club circuit around that time, but also working daytime as a plasterer. In any event, it would appear that he formed his own band, possibly with Maurice Pejoe, and secured a regular spot at the Tic Toc Lounge. If we assume then, that Spann arrived in Chicago sometime in 1947, then the follOWing six years or so must be seen to be somewhat clouded in mystery and confusion. Guitarist Jimmy Rogers recalled that Spann's early days in Chicago were spent as a homeless person. He could be found sleeping in cars on the West Side until Rogers brought him to the attention of Muddy Waters. Neil Slaven however, refers to comments made by Muddy himself in this regard: "I went over to see him at the Lounge. Him and me had played together back home, and so I offered him a job with my band. Up 'til then my band consisted of me singing and playing guitar, Little Walter on harmonica, Jimmy Rogers on guitar and Elga Edmonds on drums." The reference to 'back home' might be something of a red herring, but to my way of thinking he was eluding to Mississippi. In any event, Spann did not record with Muddy until 1953 so, in all probability, he did not join Muddy's band until then either. It has been suggested that he auditioned for Muddy and was hired in 1947. It may also have been that, following a stint with Pejoe's band, he left to join Waters in 1952. Alternatively, he may have first met Muddy when he was asked to replace Big Maceo Merriweather on club dates following the latter's stroke in 1946 and subsequently joined Muddy's band permanently in 1953. In the final analysis, it might be a safe bet to assume that now we will never really know the truth.
Whilst we are still contemplating what was, or what might have been, maybe we should also look at the long held notion that Muddy Waters (real name McKinley Morganfield) and Otis Spann were in fact half brothers. This belief still has to be established as fact. It is quite true that both men benevolently referred to each other as 'my brother', but this most probably referred to their close musical and personal relationship. Paul Oliver, writing for Blues Unlimited/Collector's Classics Booklet "Muddy Waters A Personal Biography" bore witness to their closeness in the 'sixties: "Muddy insisted on our coming to stay with him at his home. Otis and his family also lived in Muddy's house." The Spann family, at that time, consisted of Otis, his then wife Olga Marie, and three children. When I had the good fortune to record Otis for the first time, in London, during May of 1964, Muddy Waters was playing guitar. Due to his recording commitments with Chess we decided to use the pseudonym "Brother" on the artwork fooling no one. Fortunately, nobody at Chess noticed either, and if they did. they kindly kept quiet.
Once Otis had joined Muddy Waters on a permanent basis, there was no stopping him. He participated in virtually every recording session that Muddy cut for Chess from 24th September 1953 until April 1969. I make that to be close on, a staggering, sixteen years. His talents did not go unnoticed by the Chess brothers. Otis Spann soon became much in demand as a session pianist for most of their major recording artists. He participated in Bo Diddley's first recording session, which gave us such classics as "I'm A Man", "Little Girl" and "You Don't Love Me (You Don't Care)". He also recorded with Buddy Guy - 23 sides in all, including the much covered "Let Me Love You Baby". And, again with Howlin' Wolf - 18 sides; Sonny Boy Williamson - 58 sides; Jimmy Rogers - 14 sides, including another blues classic, "Walking By Myself" and with Little Walter Jacobs - 16 sides. Quite a resume one would have to say. Finally, Otis Spann was given the chance to record under his own name. On the 25th October 1954 he recorded "It Must Have Been The Devil" and the frantic instrumental "Five Spot". These titles - released on Checker 807 - featured George "Harmonica" Smith, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Robert Jr. Lockwood, and were reputedly cut following an all night party. Both are excellent cuts but, for some unknown reason, it took nearly two years for Chess to offer Spann a second opportunity of recording again as a featured artist. The results of that session remained unreleased until 1986, when P-Vine Records in Japan licensed and issued them as part of the vinyl compilation "Chicago Piano-ology". Some two years later he was to record six sides for Joe Brown's JOB label. Two of those titles have remained unreleased whilst the remaining four originally appeared on two 78rpm releases.
During the months of October and November 1958 Otis Spann was given the chance of touring Britain with Muddy Waters. Sad to say, the opening night of their European Tour proved to be something of a disaster. They performed in front of what would appear to have been a totally uninitiated audience at the Leeds Triennial Music Festival. The rest of the tour was to come under the combined auspices of the National Jazz Federation and the Blues and Ballads Association, who booked the duo into a variety of jazz and folk venues along with Chris Barber's Jazz Band. The cover of the tour programme proclaimed Muddy Waters the World's Greatest Living Blues Singer accompanied on piano by Otis Stann. Yes, that's right - that, obviously, not so well known blues pianist. At the tender age of fourteen I was too young and not yet 'in the know' to have had the opportunity of seeing any of these performances and so, I can only guess at what I missed. In the years that followed I did, however, get to see the likes of Memphis Slim and Little Walter perform in similar surroundings. I remember having mixed feelings at the time as to the advisability of putting such performers with a jazz band - ill advised or inappropriate were my immediate thoughts. Better perhaps though, to have had the opportunity of witnessing such great artists perform, than not at all.
On 2nd July 1960, the officials of the Newport Jazz Festival, Rhode Island, decided to cancel the last two remaining days of that year's Festival due to riots, caused that same day by several thousand young fans trying to gain entrance to the already crowded park. They did, however, allow the following afternoon's blues session to take place. Artists due to appear were Butch Cage and Willie Thomas, Sam Price, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters and his band. The M.C. and narrator for the afternoon session was the distinguished Afro American poet, Langston Hughes. Following Muddy's set, it was announced that the Festival had come to an end and that it seemed very likely that there would be no further Festivals in the years to come. Moved by this news, Hughes hurriedly composed "Goodbye Newport Blues". He gave the scribbled paper to Otis Spann. After a minute's thought, Spann played a brief piano introduction and began to sing. All the performers were still on stage, and they were quick to pick up their various instruments and join in. It is the considered opinion of many, that the result was, and still is, one of the most moving impromptu blues ever to be put on record, I can do nothing but agree, but would wish also to add that, perhaps, during the course of that afternoon's performance, captured for ever on videotape, Otis Spann's powers as accompanist are shown to be of the highest possible calibre. His piano work is quite astounding, whilst the blues drenched vocal of the aforementioned impromptu blues was to give us a hint of what to expect in future years.
One week later and 'our man' got to record again. Four titles were lain to tape by researcher and blues aficionado Paul Oliver, for inclusion in a forthcoming compilation album "Conversation With The Blues" to be released by British Decca. These featured Otis performing solo. That modus operandi was to be repeated barely a month later when, in New York City, presumably on tour with Muddy Waters, Otis Spann cut a slew of titles which variously appeared on five different labels - Piccadilly, Candid, Barnaby, Black Magic and more recently, Mosaic. The first Mosaic release - a 5 LP Box Set released in 1991 (MR5-139) - contains much of the sessions' worth that also features vocalist St. Louis Jimmy and Robert Jr. Lockwood. Those sessions were supervised by Nat Hentoff, who told Mark Humphrey (in the latter's booklet notes for "The Complete Candid Otis Spann/Lightnin' Hopkins Sessions" release on a latterday Mosaic CD) that Spann: "Had his stuff so totally and deeply together. We could, I suppose, have done four albums, but we did two. I think everything was one take. If there was something that wasn't one take, it's because the engineer goofed, not him. He had an enormous spirit." Alan Balfour remarked - again in his annotations to "The Half Ain't Been Told" - that these recordings were: "Possibly Spann's most personal venture (to date), combining semi-autobiographical songs with matchless solos in the vein of his mentor, Maceo Merriweather." That first Candid album was initially targeted mainly at the jazz buying public. As a result, it would be my guess that sales were not encouraging and that would have partly been the reason for the second volume not being issued until 1972, by which time the Candid set-up had collapsed. Three years further down the line and Otis was recording for Checker again, accompanied by Sonny Boy Williamson, J.T. Brown, Matt "Guitar" Murphy, Willie Dixon and Billie Stepney. But, yet again, the titles were shelved.
During the month of October 1963, Spann toured Europe as part of that year's American Folk Blues Festival and whilst in Copenhagen, he took time out to record some truly superb, contemplative solo blues for Karl Emil Knudsen's Storyville label. On his return to Chicago, Spann recorded two titles for the local One-Derful label, which were duly shelved. He also recorded a solo item for Pete Welding's Testament label entitled "Sad Day In Texas" following the shooting of John F. Kennedy. April 1964 was to find Spann back in Britain touring as part of an American Folk, Blues and Gospel Caravan promoted by the Harold Davison Organisation. It was at this point that the paths of yours truly and Otis Spann were to finally cross.
At the time of Spann's third visit to our shores I was already working my way up the ladders of employment at Decca Records. Not to at least make an effort to try and record him during the course of that visit would have been to miss an opportunity I would have surely lived to regret. If I could also get Muddy Waters, Ransom Knowling and Willie Smith - all part of that touring package - to back him on any sessions that I might be able to arrange, the scene would be set for something truly spectacular. Maybe I was born with the gift of the gab - more likely, I did not like to take 'no' for an answer - as I was able to persuade my then superior at Decca, Frank Lee, to contract Otis to record one album and one single. That momentous recording session took place on Monday 4th May 1964 in the Decca No. 2 studio, Broadhurst Gardens, West Hampstead. Twenty-three titles were recorded in the space of little more than twelve hours. Muddy Waters played some outstanding guitar throughout the proceedings and even sang on one title. Both bassist Ransom Knowling and drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith held every thing together. We even had a 'time out' to entertain Brownie McGhee and Memphis Slim who dropped by to check out what we were up to. Slim sat in on one title, even though, at that time, the piano he was playing was not set up for recording! Neil Slaven, who wrote the sleeve notes, commented: "Before this, most records made by visiting American blues men have suffered from a uniformly cold, emotionless atmosphere, mainly due, I hasten to add, to the studios themselves. But here we have a different matter; all the musicians are relaxed and the air pervading the record is one of a group of bluesmen whiling away their time, playing for their own pleasure." The album was entitled "The Blues Of Otis Spann" (Decca LK4615) and received wonderful reviews almost without exception. At a later date, I added both Eric Clapton and session man Jimmy Page to two tracks, that were to be released as a single - "Stirs Me Up" and "Keep Your Hand Out Of My Pocket" (Decca F 11972), The remaining titles, not released on the album or single, were subsequently included as part of an Ace Of Clubs compilation, "Raw Blues".
To use modern day terminology, Otis Spann's 'fan-base' was steadily broadening on this side of the Atlantic. Back in the States, he was somewhat eclipsed by the mighty shadow of Muddy Waters. It was, perhaps, not in Spann's nature to promote himself as a 'front-man'. Maybe the role of being the leader would be too pressured and a responsibility that he was not, at that time, prepared to take on. But the tide was beginning to turn and following his return to Chicaqo, Spann soon found himself in the studio with Sam Charters, cutting an album for Prestige. It was Pete Welding that would be the one to champion Spann's cause in his homeland. In the booklet notes for a Prestige CD compilation headlined "Bluesville Years Vol 2: Feeling Down On The South Side", Charters notes that the sessions that gave us "The Blues Never Die!" (Prestige LP 7391) happened because, following a performance at Carnegie Hall, the Muddy Waters Band were unable to find sufficient money to get themselves back home to Chicago. The fares were paid by Prestige in return for an album recording session. That album was released under Otis Spann's name and brought the blues of this outstanding artist to a much wider audience, despite the fact that Otis was only featured as vocalist on five cuts. The remaining vocal duties were handed over to James Cotton. James 'Pee Wee' Madison and Muddy Waters feature on guitars, whilst Milton Rector played bass and the redoubtable S.P. Leary took the drum stool. Once again, Muddy hid behind yet another pseudonym - "Dirty Rivers". In writing the sleeve notes for that release, in May of 1965, Pete Welding procialmed that: "I have long been of the conviction that 33 year old Mississippi born Otis Spann is the most wholly stimulating blues pianist currently operative. An impressive and markedly individual soloist of great rhythmic strengh, and by far the most responsive and sensitive of accompanying musicians in the whole modern blues idiom. An engagingly simple man to whom music is the whole of life. Spann is easily the most forceful contemporary representative of the sturdy southern piano style exemplified in the playing of such masters as Roosevelt Sykes and Maceo Merriweather". In the meantime, Welding had been recording Spann for his Testament label, both on hls own and accompanied by James Cotton, Johnny Young and S.P. Leary. Spann also found enough time to record an album with Johnny Young for Chris Strachwitz's Arhoolie label. That was in November of 1965. In December, he was to record five titles for Vanguard under his own name. He was then contracted to record to ABC Paramount's blues label, Bluesway. Accompanied yet again by Muddy's sidemen - George Smith. Sammy Lawhorn, Luther Johnson, Mac Arnold and Francis Clay along with Muddy himself - the "The Blues Is Where It's At" (Bluesway BLS6003) was proof indeed that Otis Spann had finally arrived on the blues scene as a force to be reckoned with.
Lady Luck then attempted to throw a spanner in the works when Pete Welding reported, to Blues Unlimited, the news that Otis had suffered a heart attack, in Los Angeles, on 9th October 1966, whilst touring with Muddy Waters. Eight days later he returned to Chicago for further treatment. It would appear that no serious damage had been done and Don DeMichael, a former managing editor of Down Beat magazine, wrote in his notes for the Barnaby album release "Otis Spann Is The Blues" that: "He bounced back. After all, he was only thirty-seven and a man of that age has certetn recuperative powers." When I met up with him again less than two years later, there were no signs whatsoever that he might have suffered a coronary. His recuperation certainly appeared to have been totally successful.
His career continued exactly where it had left off prior to that unexpected heart attack. He continued to work with 'brother' Muddy Waters and to record, not only as a sideman, but also as a featured artist. It seemed as if everyone wanted to be heard praising his considerable talents. The self-appointed 'grande dame' of the blues, Victoria Spivey. was not slow in comming forward to endorse Spann, telling the world of hls genius via the pages of Record Research. Otis repaid such kindnesses by recording, on a number of different occasions, for Spivey Records.
On a more personal note, it would have been around this period of time (1966-67) that Otis was to meet his future second wife, Mahalia Lucille Jenkins. Lucille had ambitions to become a professional singer and, if the truth be told, she might never have made it onto record had it not been for the generosity of her husband. Prior to their marriage, Spann featured Lucille on no less than four tracks of his second Bluesway outing ("The Bottom Of The Blues" - Bluesway LP6013). Lucille was to appear again on his second Vanguard album ("Cryin' Time - Vanguard LP6514) - two tracks only this time. Following the shooting of Dr. Martin Luther King, Spann recorded three titles in his memory, which appeared variously on the Chicago based Cry label and later, as part of a Roots compilation album.
The good working relationship that Otis Spann and I had shared back in London in 1964 was to be rekindled in Chicago 1968. In conjunction with our new American partners at Sire Records, Seymour Stein and Ritchie Gottehrer, a programme of US studio productions was drawn up. I was to visit Chicago that June to record Otis Spann, Johnny Shines and Sunnyland Slim. Back to the UK for sessions with Duster Bennett only to return to the US - Memphis this time - during July, to work with Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Mississippi Joe Callicott, Nathan Beauregard and the Reverend Robert Wilkins. Upon my return to New York City in August, I was scheduled to record singles with Guitar Crusher and Garfield Love. An interesting and varied tour of duty Stateside, that would also enable me to visit many blues haunts, as well as people and places of interest that had, until then, eluded me. In particular though, I was looking forward to visiting Chicago. I was not to be disappointed on that score.
Both Seymour and Ritchie were an enormous help in the setting up of these various recording sessions. Seymour in particular was well acquainted with Marshall Chess, who was producing many of the Chicago session dates at that time for the Chess/Checker/Cadet group of labels. Marshall confirmed my own feelings that the man I really needed to speak with was Willie Dixon. In particular, he would surely be the only person who could get me the musicians I wanted for the upcoming projects slated for that city. I was given Willie's number and left to deal directly with him on a person to person basis. We had never met, but of course his credentials as a songwriter, producer and bass player were already legendary, if I can be, for once, allowed to use that much misused and contentious adjective. He could not have been more helpful. I explained exactly what I was looking to achieve during my visit and if possible, I would like to do so all in one day. I have to admit that I thought this to be a pretty tall order, but Willie did not seem to be the slightest bit phased by the suggestion. The plan was to record an album's worth of material with both Johnny Shines and Sunnyland Slim and two tracks for a single release on Spann. The only real problem appeared to be the availability of all three featured artists for the same day. Eventually, the 10th June was agreed upon and the studio booked. Making the final decision in respect of backing musicians proved to be a little tricky. During my earlier conversations with Willie regarding a drummer for the sessions, I had expressed a desire, if possible, to get Willie Smith, Freddie Below or Odie Payne. As luck would have it, none of these were available due to touring commitments. We plumped for Clifton James, a regular on the Chicago scene. Walter 'Shakey' Horton was booked to play harmonica and of course. Mr. Dixon was to handle the small matter of slapping the 'hound dog' bass. There are tales to tell about that day's recording. but this is not the time, nor the place. You might wish to look out for future releases in the 'Remastered' series featuring Shines and Slim for the total picture. As hard as I might try, I cannot recall who started the ball rolling, but I have to believe that it was either Shines or Spann and probably the latter. Otis actually plays on one of the Shines titles - "Pipeline Blues" - but not on te other nine. Shines and company all play on the two titles that Otis recorded that day, but naturally enough, Spann does not feature on the Sunnyland Slim part of the proceedings. The Muddy Waters' composition "Can't Do Me No Good" and Spann's rendition of the Frank Patt classic "Bloodstains On The Wall" - retitled "Bloody Murder" - were subsequently released on Blue Horizon 57-3142 to some critical acclaim. I could only wish that there had been the opportunity to record a whole album with Otis during that visit. But it was not to be. We shook hands, on the understanding that we would reconvene as soon as possible and rectify that matter.
The seven-month wait that ensued might, and indeed should, have been shorter. Otis was scheduled to return to the UK in October of that same year along with the Muddy Waters Blues Band to appear exclusively at 'Jazz Expo '68 - The Newport Jazz Festival in London'. Actually, a variety of extra appearances had also been booked - one of which was filmed for BBC TV and subsequently found its way into the marketplace via releases on Python and Black Bear albums. Regrettably, I was locked up in the CBS New Bond Street studio working on projects with both Fleetwood Mac and Chicken Shack - a wonderful window of opportunity had slipped through my fingers and right in my own back yard too! There would be another chance, I kept telling myself. And sure enough, it came as a result of Fleetwood Mac's 1968/69 first ever US Tour.
The plan to record an album with Peter Green and company, in Chicaqo, with some of the leading lights of that city's blues scene had been on the table for a while. We were only waiting for the right opportunity. It came in January 1969. Fleetwood Mac was due to play in the Windy City and in the dead of winter. Not for the feint hearted. I immediately got in touch with Marshall Chess and Willie Dixon and set the wheels in motion. The studio was booked and the arduous task of contacting all the Chicagoan musicians got under way. Many of those on the 'wish' list proved to be out of town - Otis Rush, Magic Sam and Junior Wells in particular. But we did get promises from Buddy Guy, Walter Horton, J.T. Brown, Willie Dixon and of course, Otis Spann. I was happy enough and the resultant two album set "Blues Jam At Chess" (retitled "Blues Jam In Chicago" for the American release), whilst not that well received when released originally, has actually withstood the test of time remarkably well. Spann appeared later in the day's proceedings and therefore only featured on seven titles - five backing up 'the Mac' and two in his own right.
According to the files though, Spann did record a version of "Ain't Nobody's Business", but the tape has not been found, despite exhaustive efforts over many years. Maybe it never did get recorded in the first place - we will never know. The following day both Willie Dixon and Otis Spann turned up at The Electric Circus to witness the Mac in full swing. Had there been a piano to hand I have a feeling that Spann would have been up there with them!
Five days later - on 9th January 1968 to be exact - Otis Spann along with his travelling companion, drummer S.P. Leary, arrived at Tempo Sound Studios, Manhattan Island, to record his debut solo album for Blue Horizon. S.P. had impressed me back in Chicago and Spann had made it quite clear he would not record in New York without him. I had no problem with that, but it did seem a little hard on Mick Fleetwood. But, ever gracious, Mick happily agreed to sit out on this occasion. Otis also made it crystal clear what he thought of both Peter Green and Danny Kirwan's abilities as blues guitarists. He was no less enthusiastic with regard to John McVie's bass work - he liked the band and told them so to their faces many times, Whether they took such compliments seriously or not, I cannot say for sure, but I do know that Otis Spann was totally genuine in his praise of their talents. He did not have to be in the studio with them, I did not force this issue. He wanted it that way.
The atmosphere in the small studio was buoyant. Not a bad 'vibe' in sight or in ear shot. Now don't get me wrong - the session was not all plain sailing. Engineer Warren Slaten and I had a very hard time getting everyone set so that they could all hear each other clearly and also have good line of sight for cues and so forth. But because S.P. could be such a full-on drummer, the sound of his kit was pouring down the piano and vocal microphones, causing us in the control room, and the other musicians in the studio, many a headache. But we accepted the situation as it was, and got on with the job in hand. It did not seem prudent to waste valuable time attempting to solve a problem that might foul up the whole day's recording. The mood of the moment was far more important.
Spann had obviously done his homework and was prepared for most eventualities. He schooled John on the bass lines and was always full of encouragement. He suggested certain guitar riffs to both Peter and Danny and generally worked toward getting everyone relaxed. Well, he and S.P. were both very relaxed. They enjoyed a good bourbon or ten, no matter what the time of day! That's how it worked for them. And so it was. Twelve tracks were recorded - one of which I have no recall. It does not even turn up in my own files - very strange. Neil Slaven sent me a title listing that he had collated many years earlier, and there it was - "She'S Out Of Sight" by Otis Spann. "You will be mentioned in despatches, dear sir!" That title is released here for the first time, along with many other previously unreleased alternative takes and false starts, all taken from the original multitracks and remixed especially for this package. It's all here - some outrageously good guitar work, not only from Peter but also from his younger cohort, Danny Kirwan. S.P. Leary's skin work is exemplary and full of boundless enthusiasm and yet, at the same, totally 'simpatico' with Otis Spann's blues drenched vocals and outstanding keyboard work. The second of the two CDs contained here have been programmed in the exact same order as they were originally recorded on the day. In some way, it is hoped that this might give you, the listener. an opportunity to gain a further insight into the process of making music for the record buying public. No matter whether it be popular, jazz, soul, folk or blues, the process is usually the same. Of course, results do vary and for many different reasons. A little of the 'in between takes' studio chatter had also been preserved on multitrack and Rob Keyloch and I have done our best to save those moments that might prove to be interesting. Much was discarded however and the editing programmes of Pro-Tools were worked to the limit. We have the rare opportunity of hearing Spann mentioning Muddy Waters, although not by name, jokingly suggesting that if he doesn't record "Blues For Hippies", he - Spann that is - might get himself shot! There are times when Spann's memory fails him in respect of some of the song titles and even the lyrics. Weariness or too much imbibing? Such moments will only prove to show Otis Spann to have been as human as the rest of us. He didn't make many mistakes musically, but there are a few here. But to his credit he always acknowledged when it was his fault. Despite such rare moments of being slightly on the 'wrong side of right', I never doubted that he was the best. Truly, I was in awe of this God given talent. I became very anxious to get the tapes back to London, get the mixing completed and the album out in the shops.
"The Biggest Thing Since Colossus" (Blue Horizon 7-63217) was released in late spring of 1969. It was well received and sold well. July of that year saw Spann touring the UK again - this time on his own. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was in the process of forming his own band. In the course of an interview with Melody Maker's Max Jones, Otis explained that he had decided to come back to the UK at that time because: "I've got lots of friends here and I've been here so much it seems almost like home to me." Every extra effort was taken at that time to promote our newly released album on the back of this short tour. Had it been possible, I would have recorded him again during that visit. In any event, once again, we both agreed that it would be in all of our interests to try and record him again as soon as possible. We did not have an exclusive contract - which I regretted - but we would work to that end. In the meantime, Otis went his own way. He was to accompany and co-produce an album for Blue Horizon, during April of that year, with Johnny Young (also to be featured as part of this 'Remastered' series) and as featured artist, Spann once again recorded for Victoria Spivey. He also backed Queen V. on a session cut in Chicago, 5th May that same year - again, for Blue Honzon. The results of that session are still unreleased and the search is on to trace their whereabouts.
In August 1969 Otis cut an album in California for the Flying Dutchman, Bob Thiele. "Sweet Giant Of The Blues" was released on the Bluestime label. Some five months later. Spann was to cut his last solo effort - "Three One Blues" - for Bob Koester's Delmark label - an out-take from a Junior Wells session in which he was participating. In the early months of 1970 Otis Spann was taken seriously ill, and on 24th April of that year, he died of cancer of the liver in Chicago's Cook County Hospital. He had performed for the last time, in Boston, on 2nd April. He was survived by his second wife Lucille, and the three children from his first marriage. Five days previously, Peter Guralnick had visited him to conduct an interview for Rolling Stone magazine. What he observed obviously left him deeply moved: "A skeletal-looking man in a bathrobe sat drowsily on a sofa half asleep. The man on the sofa, too weak to do anything more than mumble faintly, said something. It was only when I heard a ghost of his familiar husky voice that I realised that this was Otis Spann. I have never felt so acute a shock." ("Lost Highway" published by Godin, 1979). On 30th April 1970, six days following his death, Otis Spann was interred at the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois. For many years, Section 6, Lot 13. Row 8. Grave #31, had no headstone - only a marker. He had not kept up his Musician Union dues and so failed to qualify for the $1,000 death benefit which would have helped pay for a stone. Almost thirty years on, Blues Revue magazine, in collaboration with the Internet newsgroup blues-l, launched a campaign to raise funds for a headstone for his grave. I was, amongst many others, a subscriber to that cause. On Sunday 6th June 1999, the stone was duly placed and dedicated. The inscription, provided by Charlie Musselwhite, read: Otis Played The Deepest Blues We Ever Heard. He'll Play In Our Hearts Forever.
Almost exactly two years after Otis Spann's death. US Polydor released a single coupling "Hungry Country Girl" with "Walkin'". Sire's Seymour Stein recalls that: "DJ Tommy Smalls of the landmark New York club Small's Paradise was doing R&B promo at Polydor. He loved the record and broke it into the charts. Cashbox and perhaps Billboard too." Released as by Otis Spann with Fleetwood Mac. "Hungry Country Girl" (BlUe Horizon BH-304) topped out at #52 on Cashbox's R&B Top 60 Chart and proved to be a good seller. Such a shame that Otis Spann did not live to partake of the ensuing prestige that this success would surely have brought him. If I may paraphrase Alan Balfour's observations made in July 2000: "Simply listening to any track by Otis Spann, either as leader or accompanist makes one all too aware that the blues world has yet to find another pianist or vocalist of his calibre. It seems unlikely that it ever will."
I have never met anyone who had a bad word to say of Otis Spann. Only good words. What an amazing talent; such a charming man; an inspiration; ever understanding and helpful to his fellow musicians and never, ever, giving less than his best. The greatest - and so on. It almost seems too good to have been true. But put Otis Spann at a piano, with or without an audience, and you were certain to witness something quite extraordinary. Blues record producer and good friend Dick Shurman, had this to say: "For me Otis was the pinnacle and perfection of blues piano, and the terrible four days during which he and Earl Hooker died left a void that has never been filled, though not for the lack of imitators." I can do no more than agree and I continually count myself as having been privileged to witness the greatest blues pianist/vocalist of all time in action - up close. Never doubt it - he was the best and he can never be replaced.
Mike Vernon - February 2006
Remixes engineered & supervised at Church Walk Studio, Stoke Newington, London 19, 21 and 25 January 2006
Someday Soon Baby & Hungry Country Girl originally released on the Fleetwood Mac album "Blues Jam At Chess": Blue Horizon 7-66227
Digitally mastered and edited at Sound Mastering
The Producer would like to thank the following for their invaluable help in the completion of this release: Alan Balfour; Neil Slaven; Dick Shurman; Big Joe Louis; Seymour Stein and Ed Romaine (Sire Records); Timothy Toomey; Rich DelGrosso and Kenneth Bays (Blues RevieW); Cilla Huggins (Juke Blues); Jeff Lowenthal; Val Wilmer; Bill Greensmith and Steve Franz and last, but by no means least, my wife Natalie, for proof reading the booklet notes.
A special 'thank you' also to all those at Sony BMG Music Entertainment for their valued assistance: Phil Savill; Alison Calvert; Richard Bowe and Steve Walsh.
A Blue Horizon (US) Production
Blue Horizon Remastered
(P) 2006 The copyright in this original sound recording is owned & made by Blue Horizon Records except where stated.
(C) 2006 Exclusively licensed to Sony BMG Music Entertainment (UK) Ltd. (the exclusive licensee) for the world excluding USA & Canada.
'Sony' and 'BMG' as used in the name Sony BMG Music Entertainment and in the Sony BMG Music Entertainment logo are protected trademarks of and are used under license from Sony Corporation and Bertelsmann AG respectively.
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