The gospel according to Otis Clay

Otis Clay

Otis Clay Performs at SPACE in Evanston. (Harvey S. Tillis / January 15, 2011)

Record executives, radio stations and arts critics love making crisp distinctions among jazz, blues, gospel, soul and you-name-it.

But music doesn't necessarily break down that way, and few performers epitomize the stylistically borderless nature of song more compellingly than Chicago vocal legend Otis Clay. At 71, he sums up vast swaths of American vernacular music, his art embracing everything from Duke Ellington to Thomas A. Dorsey, Sam Cooke to Muddy Waters.

Yet Clay makes sense of it all, the grit and growl of his voice somehow equally persuasive in music sacred and sensual, popular and rarefied, black and white.

The man who was crafting hits in the late 1960s with "That's How It Is (When You're in Love)," in the early 1970s with "Trying to Live My Life Without You" (later famously covered by Bob Seger) and in the '80s with "When the Gates Swing Open" has listened more voraciously and widely than many of us have. And that omnivorous musical appetite radiates from every phrase he sings.

"My life has always been a combination of things musically," says Clay, who earlier this year released the album "Truth Is" and on Thursday evening will perform at Governors State University during a "Chicago Live!" presentation.

"Every Saturday night I listened to the Grand Ole Opry," adds Clay, referring to his youth in Mississippi. "During the day, later on, you listened to (radio) coming out of Memphis. During the noonday, at 12 o'clock, we listened to (blues pioneer) Sonny Boy Williamson, coming out of Helena, Arksanas. (And) I'm listening to Vaughan Monroe and Rosemary Clooney and listening to Hank Williams and Roy Acuff."

So even though "they tried to pigeonhole him as a blues artist," says veteran Chicago arranger Thomas "Tom Tom" Washington, who produced Clay's latest release, "he does just about everything. He may not have had bands that could do it, but he has sat in with an orchestra, he can sing ballads, standards ... he can sing jazz as well."

Amid all of Clay's inspirations, however, one theme has been paramount, then and now.

"The church was always involved," says Clay. "It didn't serve just religion, but it was also social. That was where everybody met, especially when you're going into the country. I guess that's where the saying comes from: Meet me Sunday down in church. That's where you caught up on all the news that was going on all week.

"It was a natural thing. ... My memory goes back to when I was four. We would go to church on Sunday, and we would play church all week. (There was) some kind of character in church that we would always imitate: We're going to imitate the preacher today. If there was singing going on, you would imitate the song. It would go back as far as you would remember."

Those memories have informed Clay's work from the beginning, but they blossomed in the city where Clay arrived as a teenager to live with his uncle and aunt in the mid-1950s.

"I guess I've always loved Chicago," says Clay. "And people say, 'Well, you're from Mississippi.' And I say, 'Chicago is only a suburb of Mississippi.' It was the place to go. It was exciting, of course.

"You got to be in a place where a lot of legends (lived), whether they were blues or gospel, they were in Chicago. I guess I was about 6 or 7 years old when I saw my first live show. I was living in Clarksdale, Miss., at that time, and that was Muddy Waters.

"And now I'm in the same city that Muddy Waters is living in and playing local clubs and what have you, though I wasn't going to 'em yet. Sam Cooke was here, the Soul Stirrers, the Caravans and all these (other gospel) people. It was a lot of excitement."

Perhaps it was inevitable that Clay soon was singing gospel with the Golden Jubilaires, at age 15, and three years later, in 1960, touring the country with the Charles Bridges' Famous Blue Jay Singers. Because that ensemble performed practically every genre imaginable for virtually any audience available, Clay came to master a tremendous span of repertoire.

"We were playing schools – grammar schools, high schools, hotels and things like that," he recalls. "We were playing up in upstate New York. We were playing places like Moscow, Pa., Bethlehem, Pa. We wasn't talking about Philly and Pittsburgh. Our audience was basically, most of the time, white."

On Sundays off, "most of the time we would be singing in black churches. ... 1960 – what was the greatest craze at the time? The twist. So we added that to our repertoire. We added 'That Old Gang of Mine,' 'Mother Machree.' We were variety singers, so therefore I had that exposure, so it wasn't so hard for me to do it.

"And here we are still doing it."

Not that the journey has always been smooth. In the late 1970s, with disco ascendant, Clay found his earthy, soulful brand of singing marginalized but discovered a new audience – and a career boost – on the other side of the world.

"I went to Japan," says Clay, whose success during his first tour there surprised no one more than Clay himself.

CHICAGO

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