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Otis Clay never hit it as big as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, or even Al Green, even though Clay and Green shared the same label, band, and producer. He never got the late-period hipster rediscovery enjoyed by Solomon Burke or Chicago-soulmates Syl Johnson and Mavis Staples. But if you’ve ever been moved by gospel-soaked soul shouted out with hurricane force, Otis Clay has fifty years worth of music just waiting to tear you up. From Chicago to Memphis and back again, Clay stuck to his guns and made a career preaching to a choir of faithful fans in America, Japan and Europe while cranking out searing soul and gospel records on small labels for too few people to hear. He was a soul survivor who always stayed true to himself, his fans, and his music.
The closest Otis Clay got to a true hit record is a song almost nobody knows is his
The closest Otis Clay got to a true hit record is, tragically, a song almost nobody knows is his. In 1973, Clay scraped the lower-reaches of the Billoard charts with “Tryin’ To Live My Life Without You,” a pounding, pleading, gut-punch of Memphis soul that was probably a little too gritty to compete with the satin-smooth grooves that had already taken over R&B. The song never made it to the R&B Top 20, and didn’t even dent the Top 100 on the pop side.
Quickly enough, Clay moved on and the song was largely forgotten — it’s closest shot at a revival was a cover the same year by Brinsley Schwarz, but that group was having its own problems getting noticed. In 1979, however, one of the biggest bands in the world would give “Tryin’ To Live My Life Without You” another life, albeit in the grand tradition of old R&B songs being rewritten, renamed, and reappropriated as shiny new rock hits. In this case, that shiny new rock hit was “The Long Run” by The Eagles.
In 1979 one of the biggest bands in the world would give Clay’s song another life
Since Clay’s single was barely heard in the first place, few folks noticed the resemblance. The Eagles’ break-up record was just another Top Tenner dominating FM rock stations, just like “Heartache Tonight” did a few weeks before it. In concert, The Eagles would introduce “The Long Run” as a “tribute to Memphis” but a few folks took it as something less noble. Rock critic Dave Marsh called it a full-on “rip-off.” Bob Seger, who actually wrote and sang on The Long Run album, took a different approach. Seger, a devout student and evangelical supporter of soul music, apparently decided the best way to let rock fans know the true origins of “The Long Run” was to add “Tryin’ To Live My Life Without You” to his set-lists. As the song kicked in to gear, he would make it clear to fans that he was covering “an old Memphis song” lest they think he was launching in to the recent hit by his old friends, The Eagles. As it turned out, when Seger’s rollicking, respectful cover of “Tryin’ To Live My Life Without You” became the single from his live Nine Tonight album, it was an even bigger hit than “The Long Run.” Ironically, though, many fans thought Seger had ripped The Eagles off. Go figure. And by the time Andy Gibb covered Clay’s song on Solid Gold, it was introduced as a Bob Seger hit.
Bob Seger’s well-intentioned and beautifully executed bit of musical jujutsu certainly put some much-deserved cash in the pocket of the song’s writer, Eugene Williams, but Otis Clay wouldn’t see a penny from the battle over his song playing out on FM rock radio and in sold-out arenas. The bizarre, 19th-century economics of the music business value a song’s writer exponentially over the performer who made it a hit, so regardless of the role Clay (or any of the brilliant musicians backing him) played in creating “Tryin’ To Live My Life Without You,” the original artists who record a song get nothing when a different artist covers it. Undeterred, Clay kept on keeping on, doing what he always did best, singing his heart out for the ones who knew what was what.
If you want to hear what Clay was capable of, start with Soul Man: Live In Japan
Not long after “Tryin’ To Live My Life Without You” hit for Seger, Clay toured Japan and cut an epic live album of his own on that tour. Backed by the Hi Rhythm Section, the same folks who powered “Tryin’ To Live My Life Without You” (and every Al Green hit), Soul Man: Live In Japan is a non-stop sermon from a high-priest of soul and it finally earned Clay some of the respect he’d deserved all along. If you want to hear what he was capable of — the mighty heart pounding behind lungs of holy hellfire — this is where you start. Then you can go back to the ramshackle, Chicago garage-soul of “That’s How It Is,” or the painful pleas of his ’70s records like “I Die A Little Each Day,” and then jump forward to the straight-up searing gospel, soul, and blues albums he dutifully gave us right up until he walked through the gates of Heaven.
If you only know Redding, you need to give this Otis a try, too.
Here are 1o tracks to introduce you to the soul of Otis Clay. Enjoy: