Otis Clay

The Chicago soul and gospel great Otis Clay has been raising roofs and stirring spirits for more than half a century with his raspy, urgent singing. This month, the 70-year-old Clay will celebrate the release of his new record, Truth Is, with shows at SPACE and FitzGerald’s. He talked with me about the record and making music.

There’s a lot of variety on the record—chitlin’ circuit funk; Al Green-style shuffles; Philly soul; Earth, Wind and Fire-type jams; ballads; gospel; blues.
We [Clay, producer Tom Washington, and songwriter Darryl Carter] don’t see it as this or that category. We are [experienced in] all the different genres of music. We did the blues, we did jazz, we got gospel folks. Walk a Mile In My Shoes [his 2007 gospel record], was nominated for a Grammy, but it was nominated for best traditional R&B performance. That gives you an idea of where we are with this music.

Like a lot of soul singers, you started out singing gospel. How does that experience influence the way you approach secular material?
Soul is mainly an emotion. It [came] out of the gospel, out of the church. It’s very simple. In [gospel] you’re talking about the deity, in [soul] you’re talking about life; winning and losing in life.

In 1992, we were on tour somewhere up in Iowa. Two or three weeks later I received a letter from one of the members of the local blues society. He said, “My wife and I were in the process of finalizing our divorce and we’re back together thanks to you.” That’s what I’m talking about. It’s about feeling good about life.

To have that kind of an impact, you have to be able to deliver the song in a way that’s compelling. How do you approach a song?
Again, it’s coming out of gospel. If you didn’t touch somebody then there’s something wrong and you weren’t really doing anything. It’s all about emotion. The gospel is about emotion. Even if I’m in an auditorium or club, if you can’t Amen when I’m doing, then I’m not really doing anything.

How about the shows you’re performing here this month? What can people expect?
Right now we’re at 13 pieces [in the band]. We’re running three backup singers, two keyboards, five horns and bass and drums. We’re bringing everything.

Otis Clay performs January 5 at SPACE, 1245 Chicago in Evanston, evanstonspace.com; and January 26 at FitzGerald’s, 6615 Roosevelt Rd., Berwyn, fitzgeraldsnightclub.com.

Kevin McKeough is a contributing music critic for Chicago magazine.


Photograph: Dragan Tasic