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Spann, Otis

Otis Spann

Pianist

Started Career Early, Thanks to Contest

Chicago Studio Musician

On Tour in England with Muddy Waters

Considered Boogie-Woogie Master

Continues as a Force in Chicago Scene

Recorded Final Album in 1970

Selected discography

Sources

In the early 1950s Otis Spann gained fame as the pianist for the Muddy Waters band and as house pianist for Chicagos 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, Spanns 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 Spanns 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 students 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.

Started Career Early, Thanks to Contest

With his stepfathers 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 Waterss 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 bluesbig 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 Muddys move away from the intimate Delta-inspired sound.

Chicago Studio Musician

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 Younumbers greatly enhanced by Spanns tastefully executed piano lines. Taking note of Spanns talent, the Chess brothers and the labels in-house bassist and producer, Willie Dixon, called upon the pianist to back a number of the labels 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 Wolfs first Chess hit, No Place to Go. Describing Spanns 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 Wolfs 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 Wellss 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 Diddleys famous Chess sides Bo Diddley and Im a Man. In the same year, Spann recorded on Chuck Berrys Chess hit You Cant Catch Me and Sonny Boy Williamsons Dont 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 Dont 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 Waterss amplified guitar sound. One local publication summed up one of the duos 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 Waterss 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 wasnt 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 labelwith 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 Fords Poor Country Boy, which appeared on the Decca LP Conversation With the Blues.

Considered Boogie-Woogie Master

Spanns 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 piecenot without just foundationas 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 festivala 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 Councils 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 Guys 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 Waterss 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.

Continues as a Force in Chicago Scene

The prominence of Spanns talent in the Chicago scene was celebrated on the Vanguard labels 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, Spanns full-handed piano approach is in great tradition of classic blues pianists the easy rolling beat, the surprising flights of the right handand one is fooled into believing that a four piece band is backing him. On the second volume of the Vanguards 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 Cottons 1954 Sun recording Cotton Crop Blues and a remake of Jackie Brenstons 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 everA good man, too. Loyal, friendly, no egojust a perfect gentlemen. Inspired by Hookers Cafe Au-Go-Go album, Bluesway invited Spann to record his 1966 solo album, The Blues is Where its 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 Guys Vanguard release, A Man and The Blues. In 1969 Spann performed on Muddy Waterss 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 Spanns 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.

Recorded Final Album in 1970

I n 1970 Spann took part in his last recording session for Junior Wellss 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 albums traditional cover songs, and his rolling piano work added drive and intensity to such numbers as Wellss rendition of Robert Johnsons 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 Spanns 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 events 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 Spanns 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, Spanns thundering piano style, with its vibrant expression and articulate attack, represents a vital contribution in the shaping of postwar Chicago blues.

Selected discography

Otis Spann/Lightin Hopkins Sessions, Mosaic.

Otis Spann is the Blues, Candid, 1960.

The Blues Never Dies, Prestige.

Chicago/The Blues/Today! Vol. 1, Vanguard, 1966.

Otis Spanns Chicago Blues, Testament.

The Blues Is Where Its At, Bluesway.

The Bottom of the Blues, Bluesway.

CryinTime, Vanguard, 1969.

The Greatest Thing Since Collosus (with Fleetwood Mac), Blue Horizon.

Raw Blues, London.

Down to Earth, The Bluesway Recordings, MCA, 1995.

With others

Muddy Waters, Live at Newport, 1960, Chess.

Muddy Waters, Chess Box, Chess.

Muddy Waters, Sail On, Chess.

Muddy Waters, Trouble No More, Singles 1955-1959, Chess, 1989.

Muddy Waters, Rare and Unissued, Chess, 1991.

Muddy Waters, Mud in Your Ear, Muse.

Howlin Wolf, Real Folk Blues, Chess, 1967.

Howlin Wolf, Chess Blues Masters Series, Chess, 1972.

Chuck Berry, The Great Twenty-Eight, Chess, 1984.

Buddy Guy, I Was Walking through the Woods, Chess.

Buddy Guy, A Man and the Blues, Vanguard.

Sonny Boy Williamson, One Way Out, Chess, 1984.

Sonny Boy Williamson, Final Sessions 1963-1964, Blue Night.

John Lee Hooker, Live at the Cafe Au Go-Go, Bluesway.

Johnny Young and His Chicago Blues Band, Arhoolie.

Junior Wells, Blues Hit Big Town, Delmark.

Junior Wells, Southside Blues Jam, Delmark, 1970.

Compilations

Conversation with The Blues, Decca, 1960.

The Story of the Blues, Columbia.

The Great Bluesmen, Vanguard.

The Best Of Chicago Blues, Vanguard.

The Blues Guitar Box 2, Sequel.

Sources

Books

The Blackwell Guide, edited by Paul Oliver, Blackwell Reference, 1989.

Blues Guitar: The Man Who Made the Music from the Pages of Guitar Player Magazine, Miller Freeman Books, 1993.

Cohn, Lawrence, Nothing but the Blues, Abbeville Press, 1993.

Guralnick, Peter, Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians, Harper & Row, 1979.

Oliver, Paul, Conversation with the Blues, Horizon Press, 1965.

Rowe, Mike, Chicago Blues, The City and the Music, Da Capo, 1975.

Silvester, Peter J., A Left Hand Like God, Da Capo, 1988.

Periodicals

Jazz, October 1966.

Jazz Journal, March, 1968.

John Cohassey

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