Tuesday, February 14, 2012

King Otis

On Martin Luther King Day, tributes and remembrances appeared on Internet websites all over the world. I was especially fascinated by the list of Jazz tunes composed in Reverend King’s honor that Marc Myers posted at his JazzWax blog. I only knew a few pieces, but his list and the additional titles that his readers offered made me think of the similar outpouring that came from Blues musicians in ’68 and thereafter.

Over time, and ignoring all the broader Civil Rights recordings, there have been King tributes from “Blues Diva” sisters Nina Simone and Ethel Davenport, and "Mean Mamas" Koko Taylor and Big Maybelle; bluesy Gospel numbers from Brother Will Hairston, Rev. Julius Cheeks, Rev. Charlie Jackson, and a whole host of vocal groups; guitar evangelist-style recordings by Johnie Lewis on mournful, keening slide, Big Joe Williams on his beat-up adapted nine-string, and Tom Shaw playing Hill Country basic; even well-meaning songs by Blues-influenced,
social-conscience White guys like the U.K.’s alpha-numeric bands, U2 and UB40. Some King-related albums were rushed out during the post assassination rioting, too, mostly by Chicago Blues-oriented companies like VeeJay, the great and (in)famous Chess, and collector-critic Pete Welding’s Testament label.

But the one item that continues to intrigue me most is a rare 45 single on Cry Records (miniscule label owned by producer Norman Dayron): “A Tribute to Martin Luther King,” written and performed by great Blues pianist Otis Spann, 16-year rockin’-and-rippling, keynote accompanist—the solid center of Muddy Waters’ Band—filling the spaces, driving the guys up from under,
comping softly, laying out when not needed, fiercely attuned to Waters always, but not quite “indomitable” due to the liver cancer that would kill him in 1970 at age 40.

Much like the songs written in reaction to 9/11--led by Country’s Alan Jackson (his quietly eloquent “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?”) and Bruce Springsteen (his anthemic call to “Rise Up”)--so too the simple and powerful response of Spann… but Otis wrote and recorded his two sides within a day or two of the assassination. (The second number, “Hotel Lorraine,” was held back, and the 45's B-side given over to Big Joe Williams; more on that below.)

Muddy called Otis his “half-brother,” but I believe he meant, not an actual blood connection, but that they shared a Mississippi Delta upbringing, a polished-yet-powerful Urban Blues approach, and a fondness for a stiff drink or three. Waters maintained a tall quiff, a bold front, and a hellfire vocal style able to check and
override the amped-up electricity of Chicago Blues; he thought of Otis as his good right hand, but it was the pianist’s strong left that powered the band. Spann could match Muddy, note for chord, chord for note--driving the rhythm or rocking gently or slo-o-owing a ballad piece down to a near-funereal pace. He was a superb vocalist too, so mushmouthed he sounded half in the bag, but wrenching and wringing the words for whatever they were worth.

Spann was content to labor in the Waters vineyard for well over a decade, but he was in demand too for sessions called by other Bluesmen (Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Johnny Young, etc.), and was occasionally persuaded to record an album of his own. (The absolute best of these came from early Sixties sessions he cut for the short-lived Candid label and--my own favorite--English Decca.) Spann could outboogie Big Maceo, coax new life into a Chicago old
standby, and when inspired enough, create his own topical Blues, as he did on April 4, 1968.

His dual King numbers hurriedly taped first in a storefront church using just piano, drums, and his voice--while fires and riots raged, on the South Side and across the country--Spann later worked up a slightly revised version that included Muddy on acoustic guitar, for what was likely a King tribute concert. But before I discuss the single and concert, it should be noted that Otis’ performances are available in these forms:

Original 45? Good luck finding one. LP record of the concert? No such beast. (Though Welding and Dayron had issued an album of songs memorializing Kennedy’s death, the newer concert tapes languished in limbo.) Both of Spann’s King
originals lately are available on a Bullseye Blues CD titled Rare Chicago Blues 1962-1968; also one piece each can be found on the two separate CDs compiled and issued by Guido van Rijn on his Agram label in support of his book President Johnson’s Blues (one of a series tracing Blues musicians’ reactions to major 20th century Presidents and their policies, starting with Franklin Roosevelt).

Finally, the tribute concert plus some other live odds ‘n’ ends is currently available on a terrific Testament CD titled Live the Life; though credited to Otis with Muddy and his band, Spann’s the Man throughout. (That his brilliant Piano Blues performances were just basically shelved and forgotten for 30 years seems ridiculous now.)

Otis had shown his quickness and improvisational skills on at least two other high-profile occasions. At the infamous 1960 Newport Jazz Festival that ended in rioting, poet Langston Hughes tossed off some pertinent words, handed the paper to the pianist, and Spann quickly found a tune, tightened the fit, and then performed the closing “Goodbye Newport Blues.” And when Jack Kennedy was shot, Otis immediately wrote, simple and heartfelt, of a “Sad Day in Texas”:

You know, it was a sad day in Texas when my President passed away,
He didn’t get a chance to talk, he didn’t know he was on his way.

(Killed by a “disinteresting person,” Spann commented.)

More interesting were his words for King, with the initial “Tribute” offering his mournful reaction, and the “Hotel Lorraine” sequel fleshing out the physical scene. Otis shout-sings, the piano drilling, trilling, sweeping and cascading:

Oh, did you hear the news, happened down in Memphis, Tennessee, yesterday?
Yes, fellas, I know you had t’ heard the news, it happened down in Memphis, Tennessee, yesterday;
There came a sniper, Lord, wiped Dr. King’s life away…

Oh, when his wife and kids came out, boy, all they could do was moan,
Oh, now when his wife and kids came on out, all they could do was moan;
Not a word was in her
[can’t make out the next; possibly "recall"?] ‘cause Dr. Luther King was gone…

For the mostly forgotten sequel, Otis played slower--mournful, even funereal:

While Dr. King was talkin’, you know he uz in terrible pain,
Yeah, while he was talkin’, you know the poor man feel the pain;
They tell me at 8:05 the world was all up in a flame…

Dr. King was a man that could really understand,
Yes, brother, Dr. King was a man, and everybody know he could understand;
You know the last words he said, “God knows, I’m goin’ to the Promised Land.”

A few months later Spann had the chance to open for Muddy at that unidentified concert (taped by Welding nonetheless), and in his set included a slightly altered version of the tribute’s first part, with its obscure final line changed to this emphatic mouthful:

Looked down upon her husband, Oh Lord have mercy, you know Martin Luther King is gone!

While it’s always a treat to hear Muddy Waters play guitar, whether his uncommon acoustic pick-and-strum or his rigorous but gone-spare, electric Delta-slide, only Spann on this occasion played as though his life—or the Rev. King’s death—actually depended on it. The band sounds polished rather
than raw and electric. (Don’t let that stop you from grabbing a copy of Live the Life anyway; it’s top-of-the-keyboard Spann throughout.)

Though the span of his years was way too brief, the Blue jeweled riches Otis left roiling in his wake are still admired and studied today. He may well have been the greatest of all the Blues pianists recorded during the proximate Century of the Blues.

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