Born: March 21, 1930 in Jackson MS
Died: April 24, 1970 in Chicago IL
Otis Spann is widely considered to be the greatest of the Chicago blues pianists. With a tempered sound that seamlessly melded boogie-woogie with a more soulful blues style, Spann's contributions as part of Muddy Waters' band are inestimable. As a solo artist, he was a solid songwriter, a dynamic performer, and an underrated singer who, lucky for us, got the chance to record a number of albums. Sadly, a lot of information about Spann's life and career is apocryphal, based mostly on interviews given by the bluesman, who often changed his stories depending on the circumstances at the time.
The Big Maceo Influence
Born in Jackson, Mississippi as one of five children to musical parents – his father played piano, although not professionally, and his mother had played guitar with blues legend Memphis Minnie. Inspired by local pianist Friday Ford, the young Spann begun playing piano at the age of eight, at first performing in his father’s church. By the age of fourteen, influenced by his favorite 78s by Big Maceo Merriweather, Spann was performing in local bands in and around Jackson.
While working various jobs as a semipro football player and a professional boxer, Spann performed the usual circuit of Mississippi juke-joints and house parties. Spann is said to have relocated to Chicago in 1946 or '47, after the death of his mother, finding a mentor in Big Maceo, who smartened him to the local blues scene. While working a day job, Spann would perform at night, often accompanied by guitarist Morris Pejoe. Sometime during the late-1940s, Spann joined the Army, and after his discharge (reported by some sources as 1951), he would return to Chicago.
Meeting Muddy Waters
Spann would earn a reputation as a top-notch blues pianist, equally at ease in a band setting as he was as a solo performer. He was originally asked by the great Muddy Waters to fill in on some club dates, but Spann would end up joining Waters' band in 1952, adding his unique piano sound to Waters' music for better than 16 years. The undisputed King of Chicago blues was so fond of the young piano player that he called him his "half brother." During their tenure together, Spann brought his rampaging 88s to such classic Waters' sides as "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "I'm Ready."
During the 1950s, apart from his role in Waters' band, Spann also served as the house pianist for Chess Records, performing on recordings by artists like Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, and Bo Diddley. Sadly, the Chess brothers never realized what a fine vocalist Spann was, and only had him record a handful of sides, releasing "It Must Have Been The Devil," with guitarist B.B. King, in 1954. Spann's performance with Waters at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, released as Waters' Live At Newport 1960 album, included a rare vocal turn from Spann that, with his inspired piano playing, helped launch his solo career.
Spann recorded his remarkable solo debut album, Otis Spann Is The Blues, in 1960 with guitarist Robert Jr. Lockwood. He would follow up with the equally impressive Piano Blues in 1963, recorded in Copenhagen for the Storyville Records label. Through the 1960s, Spann would record a number of fine albums for labels like Decca, Prestige, and Vanguard. Spann's acclaimed 1966 album, The Blues Is Where’s It's At, was recorded live in the studio, in front of an enthusiastic audience, with a band that included Waters, guitarist Sammy Lawhorn, bassist Mac Arnold, and George "Harmonica" Smith.
Spann spent most of the decade touring, both with Waters and fronting his own band, performing frequently in Europe and at many of the major American blues festivals. His talents were much in demand in the studio as well, and he recorded with blues artists like Buddy Guy, Big Mama Thornton, Junior Wells, and Johnny Shines as well as with rockers like Fleetwood Mac and Eric Clapton. Tragically, as his solo career was still on the rise and demand for his musical skills at their peak, Spann was diagnosed with cancer in 1970, dying a few months later.
Recommended Albums: While any of Muddy Waters' classic 1950s recordings showcase the enormous skills of Otis Spann, his solo work is where you'll hear the full dimensions of his talents as a singer, songwriter, and musician. The Blues Never Die!, recorded with James Cotton, is generally considered to be the pianist's best showcase, followed by the excellent Walking The Blues, which was recorded in 1960 but not released until 1972. Be wary of Spann's posthumous and dodgy live albums, many of which fail to live up to his musical legacy.
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- Otis Spann Is The Blues (Candid Records, 1960)
- Piano Blues (Storyville Records, 1963)
- Portrait In Blues (Storyville Records, 1963)
- The Blues Of Otis Spann (Decca Records, 1964)
- The Blues Is Where It's At (ABC-Bluesway, 1966)
- Otis Spann's Chicago Blues (Testament Records, 1966)
- The Bottom Of The Blues (ABC-Bluesway, 1967)
- Raw Blues w/Muddy Waters & Eric Clapton (Storyville Records, 1967)
- The Blues Never Die! w/James Cotton (Prestige/Bluesville, 1969)
- Cracked Spanner Head (Decca Records, 1969)
- The Biggest Thing Since Colossus w/Fleetwood Mac (Blue Horizon, 1969)
- Cryin' Time (Vanguard Records, 1970)
- Walking The Blues (Candid Records, 1972)
- Blues Masters, Vol. 10 * (Storyville Records, 1992)
- Last Call: Live At Boston Tea Party 1970 (Mr. Cat Records, 2000)
- The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions ** (Blue Horizon, 2006)
* Released as Good Morning Mr. Blues by APO in 1996
** Includes The Biggest Thing Since Colossus with Fleetwood Mac