Music producer, songwriter, record company executive
Clyde Otis was a prolific songwriter and producer whose career spanned the decades from the emergence of rhythm and blues in the 1950s through the rap era of the 1980s. Over the course of his career, Otis is credited with writing or cowriting more than eight hundred songs. Known primarily from his collaborations with such superstars as Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin, Dinah Washington, and Brook Benton, Otis was also the first African American to become a producer at a major record studio.
Developed a Career as a Songwriter
Born Clyde Lovern Otis on September 11, 1924, in Prentiss, Mississippi, Otis grew up in relative poverty. His family did not own a radio, and his exposure to popular music did not begin until he was in his teenage years. In 1943 Otis joined the Marines, and it was while serving in World War II that he developed a love of jazz and blues. Otis served with Bobby Troup, a piano player and songwriter who later became famous for the 1946 hit "Route 66." Otis's brief friendship with Troup sparked his interest in writing songs.
Otis received an honorable discharge from the Marines and chose not to return to Mississippi. Following Troup's advice, he moved to New York City in an effort to break into the music industry. Though he spent most of his spare time writing songs, Otis took a variety of odd jobs to pay his expenses and worked for eight years as a cab driver. In 1954, while driving his taxi, Otis met a passenger acquainted with the music producer Sidney Kornhauser, and through this connection Otis's song "That's All There Is to That" was recorded as a single by the popular singer Nat King Cole. The recording was a chart hit in 1955, and Otis soon received offers from music companies to work as a professional songwriter.
In 1955 Otis joined Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) and began writing songs for a client list that included many of the era's best known R&B artists. Cole recorded two more of Otis's songs, including "Looking Back" and "Take a Look." The years 1956 and 1957 were busy for Otis, whose reputation quickly spread among producers. Fellow songwriter Aaron Schroeder, a frequent collaborator with Elvis Presley, convinced Otis to work with BMI's rival publishing company, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Under the pseudonym "Cliff Owens," Otis cowrote "Any Way You Want Me" with Schroeder, which was recorded by Presley in 1956. Otis and Luther Dixon cowrote Presley's 1958 hit "Doncha' Think It's Time." Otis also collaborated with the blues singer Ivory Joe Hunter to write another song for Presley, "Ain't That Lovin' You Baby."
Became a Music Producer
In 1958 Otis was asked to join Mercury Records as a director of artists and repertoire (A&R), where he was responsible for signing new artists, producing records, and helping to write new songs. Though the vast majority of jazz, R&B, and blues artists were African- American, Otis was the first African American to achieve an executive position at a major industry label. He went on to write and produce hits for dozens of artists, including "A Lover's Question" by Clyde McPhatter and "Call Me" by Johnny Mathis, both recorded in 1958.
That same year Otis began collaborating with Brook Benton, a struggling musician who, like Otis, had been making his living as a songwriter and had produced a number of hits for artists such as Cole and McPhatter. Having similar backgrounds, Otis and Benton became a powerful team and produced dozens of songs that were eventually recorded by Benton and a number of other Mercury artists. Otis and Benton's first collaborative effort was the song "It's Just a Matter of Time." At first the song was offered to Cole, but Otis later convinced Benton to sign with Mercury and record the song himself. Benton's version was released in 1959 and rose to #3 on the music charts, helping to bring Benton to the forefront of the R&B scene. Benton and Otis followed with seventeen consecutive hits, including "Endlessly," "So Many Ways," "Kiddio," and "The Boll Weevil Song."
In 1959 Otis convinced Benton to collaborate with Dinah Washington, whose 1959 hit "What a Difference a Day Makes," was produced by Otis and netted Washington a Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blues Performance. Both artists were reluctant, but Otis convinced them that the partnership would prove successful. With Benton he cowrote four songs that were recorded as duets by Benton and Washington, including the top ten hits "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)" and "A Rockin' Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall in Love)."
Otis's career with Mercury peaked in 1962 when the company's artists scored fifty-one of the top one hundred hits, and Otis was the producer of thirty-three of the songs. At this point in his career, Otis was one of the most sought after producers in the R&B industry and had worked with many of the era's most notable artists. After his record year Otis was lured from Mercury Records by rival Liberty Records, with a significant increase in salary. However, after less than a year at Liberty he realized that his goals would best be met by working on his own.
Founded Music Publishing Company
Otis founded his own company, The Clyde Otis Music Group, Inc., and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he began writing and producing for country music artists such as Sonny James and Charlie Rich. He retained his contacts in the R&B music business and produced a number of crossover hits, with country versions of some of his popular R&B hits. After several years of success in Nashville, Otis was paying a visit to Sarah Vaughn when Vaughn convinced him to relocate his business and his family to Englewood, New Jersey. Otis built a house near Vaughn in the upscale East Hill neighborhood of Englewood, where one of his neighbors was the jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.
Otis continued to expand his repertoire and, in the 1980s and 1990s branched out into hip-hop, taking such clients as Salt-n-Pepa and Grand Puba to the top of the U.S. rap charts. In the 1980s Otis was asked to serve on the BMI Foundation's artist advisory panel, where he helped to support the promotion of independent music through grants to nonprofit music organizations and artists. In 2000, for his services to the industry, Otis was awarded the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.
Otis and his family remained in Englewood until his retirement, at which time he passed control of his company to his children. He died on January 8, 2008, in Englewood Hospital. The Clyde Otis Music Group, under the leadership of Otis's son Isidro, continued to work with artists in hip-hop, R&B, and other genres. For more than fifty years, Otis was a significant figure in the music industry, and through his early involvement in production and management he paved the way for a generation of African Americans who would rise to prominence as producers, writers, and record company executives. His songs, made famous by some of the leading performers of the 1950s and '60s, remain a lasting tribute to his experience and his unique view of life and music.
At a Glance …
Born Clyde Lovern Otis on September 11, 1924, in Prentiss, MS; died January 8, 2008, in Englewood, NJ; married (wife's name, Lourdes); children: Clyde III, Isidro, AnaIza. Military service: U.S. Marines, 1943-45.
Career: Broadcast Music Inc., songwriter, 1955-58; Mercury Records, producer, creative director, 1958-62; The Clyde Otis Music Group, Inc., founder and director, 1957-08.
Memberships: BMI Foundation, artistic advisory panel member, 1985-2008.
Awards: Pioneer Award, Rhythm and Blues Foundation, 2000.
"That's All There Is to That," 1955.
"Looking Back," 1955.
"Take a Look," 1955.
(Under pseudonym Cliff Owens with Aaron Schroeder) "Any Way You Want Me," 1956.
(With Ivory Joe Hunter) "Ain't That Lovin' You Baby," 1957.
"Call Me," 1958.
(With Luther Dixon) "Doncha' Think It's Time," 1958.
"A Lover's Question," 1958.
(With Brook Benton) "Endlessly," 1959.
(With Brook Benton) "It's Just a Matter of Time," 1959.
(With Brook Benton) "So Many Ways," 1959.
(With Brook Benton) "Kiddio," 1960.
(With Brook Benton and Luchi Dejesus) "A Rockin' Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall in Love)," 1960.
(With Murray Stein and Brook Benton) "Baby (You've Got What it Takes)," 1960.
(With Brook Benton) "The Boll Weevil Song," 1961.
"Think Twice," 1961.
Business Wire, January 10, 2008.
The Independent (London, England), February 19, 2008.
New York Times, January 18, 2008.
The Times (London, England), January 15, 2008.
The Clyde Otis Music Group, http://www.tcomg.com/ (accessed March 26, 2008).
Additional Information for this biography was obtained in an interview with Isidro Otis on February 27, 2008.
—Micah L. Issitt
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