‘Otis Spann’ – by Alan Balfour, from the British Blues Archive
Otis Spann first recorded with Muddy Waters in 1953. If we discount an isolated 1949 Johnny Jones session this was Muddy’s first recording with a pianist since his Chess debut with Sunnyland Slim in 1947. The 23-year-old Otis Spann was to hold down the piano stool in Waters’ equally lucky band in a fruitful and unique collaboration that lasted for the next seventeen years.
Originally from Jackson, Mississippi, where he was born on March 21, 1930 to Frank Houston Spann and Josephine Erby, Otis Spann was of a younger generation than fellow pianists Sunnyland Slim, Roosevelt Sykes or Memphis Slim, but his early musical tutelage was very similar. In Spann’s case, he was inspired to play the piano at the age of eight by a local pianist, Friday Ford: “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”, he affectionately recalled in 1960.
A few years later those fingers had developed sufficiently for him to enter, and win, a competition, playing and singing songs like “Backwater Blues” and “Four O’Clock Blues”, but the chronology of the next few years has become confused as a result of Spann’s penchant for giving conflicting information in interviews. Over time, a lot of what he had to tell interviewers, such as his tales of studying to be a doctor, changed to suit the circumstances, and what he thought would be believed. It appears to be correct, though, that he was playing in local bands around Jackson from the age of fourteen, and moved to Chicago when his mother died in 1947.
Spann claimed to have enlisted in the army at the age of sixteen, serving for exactly 5 years, 7 months and 11 days, and spending most of his time in Japan in Camps K-6, 7 and 18 followed by a short time in Germany. By the time of his discharge, he said, he had made 2nd lieutenant. However, fellow musicians recall Spann working as a plasterer during that period, as well as being a regular at the piano in Chicago clubs. His death certificate states that he served in Korea, but these details are usually supplied by relatives, and not 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, so we’ll have to allow him some poetic licence on the score of his military activities.
It’s sometimes still believed that Spann and Muddy Waters were half-brothers, but this has yet to be established as fact. Muddy confirmed to Jim O’Neal that the two men benevolently referred to each other as ‘my brother,’ probably referring to their close musical and personal relationship. Paul Oliver bore witness to their closeness in the sixties: “Muddy insisted on our coming to stay with him at his home … Otis Spann and his family also lived in Muddy’s house…” (At that time, the Spann family consisted of Otis, his then wife, Olga Marie, and three children). To add to the confusion, there are varying reports as to when, how and where Otis and Muddy first met. The favoured possibilities are: that Spann auditioned for, and was hired by Muddy in 1947; that he may have first been a member of Morris Pejoe’s band, leaving to join Muddy in 1952; or even that he was asked by Waters to replace Big Maceo Merriweather on club dates following Maceo’s stroke in 1946, and eventually joined Muddy permanently in 1953. Similarly, fellow musicians give conflicting accounts of Spann’s early days in Chicago. For instance, guitarist Jimmy Rogers recollected that Spann’s early days in Chicago were spent as a homeless person, sleeping in cars on the West Side until Rogers brought him to Muddy’s attention. Perhaps the reality of Otis Spann’s formative years in the Windy City was that he spent them scuffling around the night spots, hustling for jobs with the likes of Morris Pejoe until finally joining Muddy; but will we ever know?
Whatever occasioned that initial meeting, during the next eleven years Otis Spann not only participated in numerous Muddy Waters recording sessions but, as his discography attests, was also in great demand by Chess as a session pianist, accompanying artists such as Bo Diddley (he was on Diddley’s first session, in 1955, which produced the classic “I’m A Man”), Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter. In the perceptive words of Mike Rowe, “Spann’s contribution was a magnificently rolling bass or, in the band passages, crashing treble work which perfectly fitted the new sound of the city”. The reference was to Otis’s role in the Muddy Waters band, but it is an equally appropriate description of his contributions elsewhere. Otis Spann’s recording career under his own name began in 1954, with a dynamic single on the Checker label; supposedly recorded after an all night party, it coupled the hoarsely hollered “It Must Have Been The Devil” with the frantic instrumental “Five Spot”. Two years later, a further two numbers were recorded for the company, but they remained unreleased until 1986, when P-Vine Records in Japan licensed and issued them as part of the vinyl compilation Chicago Piano-ology. During October and November 1958, Spann was afforded the opportunity of touring Britain with Muddy Waters, and the pair made their European debut at the wholly inappropriate Leeds Triennial Music Festival. One jazz critic, fully aware of the ludicrousness of the situation, commented, “Having flown the blues men over 2,000 miles to appear, those responsible might have at least gone to the trouble of ensuring that they were sensibly presented to what must have been an uninitiated audience”; the ‘serious’ music critics dipped deep into the vitriol and complained of “screaming guitar and howling piano”. After that unpropitious start, the rest of the tour came under the combined auspices of the National Jazz federation and the prosaically named Blues and Ballads Association, who booked them into a variety of jazz and folk venues with Chris Barber’s Jazz Band. The cover of the tour program proclaimed Muddy Waters The World’s Greatest Living Blues Singer Accompanied on Piano by Otis Stann. The typographical error can be forgiven; blues knowledge in Britain was in its infancy in 1958.
Four years were to elapse after the 1956 unreleased Chess session before Otis Spann recorded as a name artist again; when he did so, it was for ventures with radically different objectives. During the week immediately following his successful appearance with Muddy Waters at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, an impromptu session, which elicited several songs and a plethora of interview material, was conducted in Chicago by the English researcher Paul Oliver, as part of the ‘Blues Research and Recording Project’ which resulted in Conversation With The Blues. The next month, August, saw Spann in the New York studios of Candid Records, in company with Robert Jr. Lockwood and St. Louis Jimmy, recording his first extended commercial session. The resulting release was possibly Spann’s most personal venture, combining semi-autobiographical songs with matchless solos in the vein of his mentor, Maceo Merriweather. Session supervisor Nat Hentoff told Mark Humphrey, “He 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.” The album was marketed mainly to the jazz buying public, but the second volume from the sessions, originally scheduled for release in 1962, didn’t see the light of day until a decade later, due to the collapse of Candid. By that time, there was definitely a blues audience to be targeted.
In October 1963, Spann toured Europe as part of that year’s American Folk Blues Festival and recorded some superb, contemplative solo blues for Storyville Records in Copenhagen, singing in his trademark broken, husky voice, so reminiscent of Maceo Merriweather. He returned to British soil six months later, in April 1964, as part of an American Folk, Blues and Gospel Caravan promoted by the Harold Davidson Organisation. During that visit, Mike Vernon organised and recorded a session with fellow tour members Muddy Waters (using the pseudonym “Brother” because of his exclusive recording contract with Chess), veteran bassist Ransom Knowling and drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith . As Neil Slaven attested, “before this, most records made by visiting American bluesmen 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.” He wasn’t too far off; the outcome was one of the most sympathetic Chicago blues sessions ever recorded outside Chicago. Neither the inclusion of aspiring white guitar hero Eric Clapton, nor the occasional use of a piano with its hammers doctored with thumb tacks, to achieve a “honky tonk” effect, prevented the results being blues of the highest order. In Britain, Otis Spann was amassing an army of ardent fans, but America had yet to wake up to his unique talent, probably because back home Spann was still hidden in the long shadow cast by Muddy Waters. To be fair, it wasn’t in Spann’s nature to promote himself as a ‘frontman’, for he regarded the role of leader as too pressurised, and a responsibility he was not keen to embrace. Up to this point in his career, two of the three albums released under his name were European by label origin and impetus.
It was around this time that writer, journalist, record producer and jazz fan turned blues aficionado Pete Welding began to champion Spann’s cause Stateside. “I have long been of the conviction that Otis Spann is the most wholly stimulating blues pianist currently operative, an impressive and markedly individual soloist of great rhythmic strength, and by far the most responsive and sensitive of accompanying musicians in the whole modern blues idiom”, declared Welding in 1965, after having spent much of the previous year recording Spann for his Testament label. Spann’s career as a name artist on LPs targeted at the American blues audience at last began in earnest. It was toward the latter part of 1964, after Muddy and his band had performed at Carnegie Hall, that the band “found themselves with insufficient funds to return to Chicago and earned their fare home with the Blues Never Die album” which was recorded by Prestige under the supervision of Sam Charters and released in early 1965 as by Otis Spann. In November 1965, Spann was back in the studio accompanying Johnny Young on an Arhoolie recording session, and in January 1966 he travelled to Toronto, where he appeared both with Muddy’s band and solo on the CBC-TV special “Festival Presents the Blues”, sponsored by the phone company. Then self-appointed grande dame of the blues Victoria Spivey began endorsing Spann, telling the world of his genius – in her own inimitable way – via the pages of Record Research, and sporadically recording him for her Spivey Records label between 1967 and 1969. It was around this time that Otis met Mahalia Lucille Jenkins (b. June 23rd, 1938), who was to become his second wife. Lucille had ambitions to be a singer, and Spann generously included her on his 1967 Bluesway album The Bottom Of The Blues, and again the following year on his Vanguard album, Cryin’ Time.
Otis Spann was at last being acknowledged as an artist in his own right, but as fate would have it, his health now began to take a turn for the worse. Contemporary reports seemed to suggest that alcohol was playing a part in this, but whatever the contributory causes, Spann suffered a heart attack on October 9th, 1966, which Pete Welding reported to Blues Unlimited as having occurred while he was in Los Angeles touring with Muddy. Eight days later Spann returned to Chicago to receive further treatment. Fortunately no serious damage had been done and Don DeMichael, a former managing editor of Down Beat, wrote that “he bounced back; after all he was only thirty seven and … a man of that age has certain recuperative powers”. Those recuperative powers were indeed pretty amazing, for Spann was able to record a bewildering number of sessions, and to visit London with Muddy in October 1968, ostensibly to appear exclusively at Jazz Expo ’68 – The Newport Jazz Festival in London. In reality, a variety of spin-off dates had been organised, before and after that gig, under the billing “The Muddy Waters Blues Band with Otis Spann”.
In July 1969, Spann toured Britain again, but this time on his own, for he was in the process of forming a band with himself as leader. When asked by Max Jones of the Melody Maker why he’d chosen to launch the new phase of his career in Britain, he commented, “I’ve a lot of friends here and I’ve been here so much it seems almost like home to me.” During the same conversation, Jones asked him about his relationship with Muddy, in the light of rumours that had reached Britain six months previously about professional disagreements between them, and received the answer: “Me and Muddy are still tight, you know. There was no falling out. You kidding? After 23 years together? I told him I was going to try and make it alone and he said ‘Go ahead and go out. If you don’t make it, come on back home.’” It should perhaps be added that contemporary gossip held that a reason for Otis’ leaving was that Muddy wouldn’t let Lucille Spann sing with the band. For a while, the Spanns worked with Sam Lay, who was prepared to feature her.
We’ll never know if Otis Spann would have made it or not, for six months later he fell seriously ill, and on April 24th 1970, at the age of forty, he died of cancer of the liver in Chicago’s Cook County Hospital. He’d played his last gig in Boston on April 2nd. He was survived by his second wife, Mahalia Lucille, and the three children of his first marriage. Five days previously Peter Guralnick had visited Spann to interview him for Rolling Stone, and 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.” On April 30th, six days after 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, just a marker: Spann hadn’t kept up his union dues, and so failed to qualify for the $1,000 death benefit which might have paid for that stone. Ironically ‘dues’ of a different nature accrued in early 1972, when Polydor released a single on Blue Horizon. Culled from the 1969 sessions held in Chicago and New York that had featured Spann with the British group, Fleetwood Mac, “Hungry Country Girl”/“Walkin’”, sold
remarkably well, especially for an artist so firmly rooted in the blues idiom, entering the Cash Box Contemporary chart, and achieving the No. 52 position. It is a pity that Otis Spann didn’t live to enjoy the fleeting prestige this would have brought, and to reap its more concrete financial rewards.
A further measure of recognition and respect took place at a ceremony held at the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, when Muddy Waters presented Spann’s widow, Lucille, with a plaque which read: The people of Ann Arbor Michigan in recognition of the talent, the genius of the late Otis Spann, sweet giant of the blues, formally dedicate the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, 1972 in the grounds upon which it stands to the memory of this great artist that September, the performance area where the plaque was placed became known as The Otis Spann Memorial Field, and remained so for the ensuing years of the festival. When asked by Max Jones what other blues pianists there were in Chicago who could take his place in the Muddy Waters band, Spann replied that “there are some of them in Europe and different parts of the States, but not in Chicago. I’m one of the few that’s left.” He may have given colourful and exaggerated accounts of his life, but in truth he was not just one of the few, but the only surviving exponent of that particular brand of Chicago blues piano. The late Pete Welding provided the most fitting epitaph for Otis Spann: “A man’s life is measured not by the span of his years but by the use he makes of the time allotted him. Otis Spann never saw his fortieth year [out] yet he achieved much while he was among us – in the beauty, strength and integrity of his music – for his having been there.” Almost thirty years after Spann’s death, Blues Revue magazine in collaboration with the internet newsgroup blues-l launched a campaign to raise funds for a headstone for his grave. On Sunday June 6 1999, the stone was duly placed and dedicated at Burr Oak Cemetery in Chicago. The inscription, provided by Charlie Musselwhite, read: Otis Played The Deepest Blues We Ever Heard. He’ll Play In Our Hearts Forever. Otis Spann’s daughters, Brenda and Violet (Howard), attended the ceremony, as did drummer Francis Clay, once a colleague of Spann’s in the Muddy Waters band, but sadly neither Otis’s second wife, Lucille, nor his son by his first wife, lived to attend. The exact date when Spann’s son died isn’t known, but by a sad coincidence he too only lived to the age of 40. Lucille had passed away on August 2nd, 1994 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where she had relocated shortly after Spann’s death.
Bill Rowe’s discography highlights the vast and varied extent of Spann’s recording activities. Simply playing a track by him, either as leader or accompanist, makes it painfully obvious that the blues has yet to find another pianist of the calibre of Otis Spann. It seems unlikely that it ever will.
ALAN BALFOUR July 2000
For instructive and constructive discussions I am particularly indebted to: Mary Katherine Aldin, Dave Apps, Scott Barretta, Alasdair Blaazer, Claudio Caponi, Sebastian Danchin, Scott Dirks, Robert Gordon, Eric Leblanc, John Livermore, Peter Malick, Jim O’Neal, Bob Pruter, the late Bill Rowe, Howard Rye, Frank Scott, Mike Sheridan, Chris Smith, Dick Shurman, Neil Slaven, Mike Vernon and Gaile Welker.
Please Note: This article is “historical” and should be viewed in the context of the times in which it was written.