In the early 1950s Otis Spann gained fame as the pianist for the Muddy Waters band and as house pianist for Chicago’s Chess records, the record label of Waters and other blues legends such as Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, and Buddy Guy. Playing in a style rooted in boogie-woogie piano tradition, he developed a unique and formidable blues approach. Though a talented singer and soloist with many fine recordings to his credit, Spann’s career saw him primarily in the role of accompanist, recording with such bluesmen as Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf, and rock ‘n’ roll pioneers Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. His work with Muddy Waters contributed to one of the most celebrated ensembles in the history of the blues. By the 1960s Spann’s solo career brought audiences a refined barrelhouse sound unequaled among postwar blues pianists.
Otis Spann was born on March 21, 1930 in Jackson, Mississippi. One of five children, Spann was reared by his stepfather Frank Houston Spann, a preacher, and his mother Josephine Erby. As a youth he heard the blues at house parties and, at an early age, learned the rudiments of keyboard from Friday Ford, a pianist based in nearby Belzoni. Despite the fact that his student’s fingers had yet to attain the proper reach between the keys, Ford sat young Otis on his knee and taught him the basics of blues piano. In Conversation with the Blues, Spann described Ford as “a great man and a wonderful player,” a musician who had a lasting impact on his musical development.
With his stepfather’s purchase of a piano, Spann earnestly pursued his musical studies. In Jazz Journal he noted the influence of Ford and several other blues musicians: “My biggest influence was [local pianist] Coot Davis and also Tommy Johnson, Leroy Carr, Big Maceo [Merriweather]. Maceo could play just as good as he could sing.” At age eight, Spann won a talent contest at the Alamo Theatre where the owner sub sequently hired him to perform behind vaudeville acts dressed in a hat and tails.
As a teenager, in the early 1940s, Spann fought in the Golden Gloves and claimed to have twenty-eight knock outs in a string of forty-eight fights. He also played pro football and eventually became a pro fighter, but his sports career was interrupted by his induction in the Army in 1946. Discharged from the service in 1951, he moved north to Chicago where he supported himself as a plasterer by day and as a pianist at nightly house parties. He eventually formed his own combo and took
For the Record…
Born Otis Spann, March 21, 1930, in Jackson, MS; died of cancer on April 24, 1970, in Chicago, IL; son of Josephine Erby (a musician); stepfather was Frank Houston Spann (a preacher); married Mahalia Lucille Jenkins (a gospel and blues singer), 1967. Education: Attended Campbell Junior College, mid-1940s.
Began study of keyboard at age five; worked at house parties, late 1930s; played pro football for Bells Team and became golden glove boxer, mid-1940s; turned pro boxer, mid-1940s, and served in U.S. Army, 1946-1951; moved to Chicago and worked as a plasterer and musician, 1951; worked with own combo and others before playing with Muddy Waters band from 1953-69; recorded with Junior Wells on States label, 1954; record-ed own sides and with numerous artists on Chess and Checker labels, 1950s.
Recorded with Johnny Young on Arhoolie label, 1965; while member of Waters’ band in 1967, maintained a solo recording career and often toured with wife, singer Lucille Spann; recorded as accompanist for Junior Wells, 1970.
Awards: Inducted into Blues Hall of Fame, 1980.
a job at the Tick Tock Lounge where he performed steadily between 1950 and 1953. In the vibrant Chicago blues scene he encountered many older and established blues pianists such as Roosevelt Sykes, Little Brother Montgomery, and Sunnyland Slim.
After Spann recorded with Muddy Waters in 1952, he performed in Chicago clubs with the band of guitarist and harmonica player Louis Meyers. In 1953, after a stint with Louisiana-born guitarist Morris Pejoe, he replaced Big Maceo as Waters’s regular pianist. “Spann was the natural successor to Big Maceo,” observed Mike Rowe in Chicago Blues. “In the band Otis was a tower of strength. Never obtrusive (in fact Spann believed the harmonica to be the most important instrument), he was the perfect accompanist and ensemble player and every note he hit seemed just right.”
With the hiring of Spann, wrote Jas Obrecht in Blues Guitar, “Muddy finally actualized his dream of a blues‘big band’ when pianist Otis Spann, whom Muddy lovingly referred to as his half-brother, was an unobtrusive sideman who could accommodate styles ranging from subtle fills to thunderous boogies. His admission into the band completed Muddy’s move away from the intimate Delta-inspired sound.”
In 1953 Spann accompanied Waters on the Chess hits “Blow Wind Blow” and “Mad Love (I Want You to Love Me)” and appeared on such Waters classics as “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You”—numbers greatly enhanced by Spann’s tastefully executed piano lines. Taking note of Spann’s talent, the Chess brothers and the label’s in-house bassist and producer, Willie Dixon, called upon the pianist to back a number of the label’s artists. In Nothing But the Blues, Dixon described Spann as “a good musician… who knew “how to make other fellows sound good. Otis was the type of guy who could play with anybody.” In 1954 Spann recorded on Howlin’ Wolf’s first Chess hit, “No Place to Go.” Describing Spann’s contribution to the number, Paul Garon wrote in The Blackwell Guide, “Otis Spann adds considerable solo demonstrating a remarkable sensitivity for the potential intricacy of the piece.” Spann also appeared on Howlin’ Wolf’s 1954 sides “How Long,” “Forty-Four” and the haunting blues classic “Evil (Is Goin’ On).”
In April of 1954, Spann and Muddy Waters took part in Junior Wells’s second session for the States label. Spann also made several J.O.B label recordings with saxophonist J.T. Brown and a side for Checker entitled “It Must Have Been the Devil.” In February of 1955, Spann appeared on Bo Diddley’s famous Chess sides “Bo Diddley” and “I’m a Man.” In the same year, Spann recorded on Chuck Berry’s Chess hit “You Can’t Catch Me” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me to Talkin.”
On Tour in England with Muddy Waters
As a member of the Muddy Waters band Spann appeared on the 1956 Chess sides “Don’t Go No Further” and “I Live the Life I Love.” In October of 1958 Waters accepted an invitation to tour England. Without funds to bring his entire group, Waters took along Spann as his only accompanist. Critics and writers, accustomed to skiffle music and the live performances of acoustic bluesmen such as Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, voiced their negative reaction to Waters’s amplified guitar sound. One local publication summed up one of the duo’s performances by displaying the headline “Screaming guitar and howling piano.” One of the surviving recordings of the tour, Collaboration, Muddy Waters & Otis Spann, reveals an intimate performance by Waters and Spann greeted by spirited applause with little evidence of the cacophonous volume that initially outraged English critics. As the only harmonic support behind Waters’s voice and guitar, Spann, despite the poor recording quality, is heard with full creative force, his right hand delivering trademark syncopated runs and trills.
Back In Chicago, Spann continued to record with Waters, producing such Chess sides as the 1959 cut “Mean Mistreater.” During the same year, Spann and guitarist Robert Junior Lockwood backed Sonny Boy (Rice Miller) Williamson for his Chess releases “Let Your Conscience be Your Guide” and “Cool Disposition.” Though a strong vocalist possessing a soothing whiskey-soaked voice as well as a gifted pianist, Spann was overlooked by the Chess brothers as a potential solo artist. It wasn’t until 1960 that Spann, joined by Junior Lockwood, recorded his first major solo work, Otis Spann is the Blues, on the Candid label. As Mike Rowe noted in The Blackwell Guide, the album emerged as “the definitive postwar piano solo album for a small jazz label…with blues piano playing and singing of the highest order.” During the same year, English researcher and scholar Paul Oliver recorded two numbers by Spann, “Peoples Calls Me Lucky” and Friday Ford’s “Poor Country Boy,” which appeared on the Decca LP Conversation With the Blues.
Spann’s performance on his 1960 cut “This is The Blues” was described by Peter J. Silvester in A Left Hand Like God as “an impressive tour de force, using a variety of boogie-woogie bass figures against a scintillating and dazzling display of pyrotechnics in the right hand (which, however, rely heavily on repeated chords with crashing force). Some may regard this piece—not without just foundation—as the ultimate development of the boogie-woogie piano; others may consider that the ‘modernity’ of its musical language and style place it beyond the confines of the boogie-woogie idiom.”
During the same year, Spann displayed his talents with the Muddy Waters band at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival. Appearing at the Sunday afternoon blues program of the festival—a performance later released as the now-classic Chess album Muddy Waters at Newport— Spann joined Waters and bandmembers drummer Francis Clay and bassist Andrew Stevenson for a set which featured a rousing version of “Got My Mojo Working.” For the show Spann contributed one vocal number “Goodbye Newport Blues,” a slow blues written by African American poet Langston Hughes which lamented the Newport City Council’s decision to cancel the concert series, after a Saturday night riotous crowd attempted to gain entrance to the sold-out festival.
In 1962 Spann provided the piano accompaniment for several of Buddy Guy’s Chess sides including “First Time I Met The Blues” and “Stone Crazy.” In the following year, while on tour in London with the Muddy Waters band, he recorded with Waters’s unit and several guest horn players for the solo effort The Blues of Otis Spann. While in Europe he also attended a Copenhagen recording session with Sonny Boy Williamson. Spann then released the 1965 Prestige solo album which featured Waters under the alias “Dirty Rivers.”
The prominence of Spann’s talent in the Chicago scene was celebrated on the Vanguard label’s 1966 blues series, Chicago/The Blues Today! Vol. I. One of the featured artists on the album, Spann performed in duo setting with drummer S.P. Leary. In his original review of the album for Jazz magazine, John F. Szwed commented, “Spann’s full-handed piano approach is in great tradition of classic blues pianists the easy rolling beat, the surprising flights of the right hand—and one is fooled into believing that a four piece band is backing him.” On the second volume of the Vanguard’s series, Spann, along with guitarist J. Madison, and drummer S.P. Leary, comprised the “Jimmy Cotton Blues Quartet.” The session produced a fine rendition of Cotton’s 1954 Sun recording “Cotton Crop Blues” and a remake of Jackie Brenston’s 1951 Sun hit “Rocket 88.”
With the Muddy Waters band, Spann backed John Lee Hooker for the 1966 LP Live at the Cafe Au-Go-Go. Recalling the collaboration Hooker stated, as quoted in Blues Guitar, “I really enjoyed when we did the CafeAu-Go-Go in New York, me and Otis Spann and Muddy Waters. Otis was one of the greatest piano players of the blues ever…A good man, too. Loyal, friendly, no ego…just a perfect gentlemen.” Inspired by Hooker’s Cafe’ Au-Go-Go album, Bluesway invited Spann to record his 1966 solo album, The Blues is Where it’s At. Recorded in front of a live studio audience and backed by the Muddy Waters band, the album captured many fine moments, especially the opening number, “Popcorn Man,” written by Waters.
In 1967 Spann married singer Lucille Jenkins and featured her, along with the Muddy Waters band, on the Bluesway LP The Bottom of the Blues. That same year, he recorded with the Waters band for the Muse album Muddy Waters/Mud In Your Ear and Buddy Guy’s Vanguard release, A Man and The Blues. In 1969 Spann performed on Muddy Waters’s half-studio and half-live double-album, Fathers and Sons, a critically acclaimed recording which showcases Spann, the fine harmonica of Paul Butterfield, and guitarist Michael Bloomfield.
Spann left the Waters band in 1969 and released his Vanguard solo album Cryin’ Time, backed by the gifted Chicago blues guitarist Luther Tucker, who was relegated to playing rhythm guitar, leaving the lead guitar work to Barry Melton of the rock group Country Joe and the Fish. Spann also guested on the 1969 all star blues LP Super Black Blues and toured the college circuit and various nightclub venues with his wife Lucille. That same year saw the release of Spann’s album Cracked Spanner Head— with vocal material culled from the album The Blues of Otis Spann— complete with pseudo-abstract cover art intended to promote sales among the psychedelic rock audience.
I n 1970 Spann took part in his last recording session for Junior Wells’s Delmark LP South Side Blues Jam, which captured Spann, Wells, and Buddy Guy in a relaxed afterhours atmosphere. Spann was responsible for selecting several of the album’s traditional cover songs, and his rolling piano work added drive and intensity to such numbers as Wells’s rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down” and the Waters hit “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” In the early spring of 1970, writer and music researcher Peter Guralnick visited Spann’s Chicago apartment and found the pianist in good spirits, but extremely underweight with a “painfully emaciated face.” A few weeks later, Spann entered Cook County Hospital where he died of cancer on April 24, 1970. Scheduled to play the 1970 Ann Arbor Blues Festival, Spann received a posthumous tribute by the event’s organizers who renamed the festival site “Otis Spann Memorial Field.”
A decade after his death, Spann was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Musicians and critics alike have continued to hail Spann’s piano talent. In the late 1960s Muddy Waters told Sheldon Harris, in Jazz Journal, that he considered Otis Spann “the best blues piano player we have today. There is no one left like him who plays the real, solid, bottom blues.” Samuel Charters, in his liner notes to Chicago/The Blues Today!, stated that Spann “without argument or qualification, is one of the greatest blues piano men who ever lived.” In an age dominated by guitarists and harmonica soloists dependent on excessive volume, Spann’s thundering piano style, with its vibrant expression and articulate attack, represents a vital contribution in the shaping of postwar Chicago blues.
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