Monday, June 24, 2013

"Otis Spann is the Blues"

Some music travels far before it sticks in my soul. 

Ten years ago I bought "Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus." I was instantly taken with the album's fiery, focused small group jazz and the all-star lineup:  Mingus on stand up bass, his seasoned drummer Dannie Richmond, and an explosive pair of horns - Ted Curson on trumpet and the phenomenal Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet and alto sax.

The album was on Candid, an obscure label which released just four of the records in Mingus' extensive catalog. Intrigued by this newly discovered label, I typed "Candid" into the library search engine in one browser then toggled over to another browser to read reviews of the selections at

This search bore fruit in the form of "Otis Spann Is the Blues," the first solo release from the man best known as Muddy Waters' long-time piano player (Spann also worked with legendary blues figures Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, and B.B. King). The review was short but enthusiastic, as I was when I requested the CD for pickup.  

Saying one is the blues is a ballsy claim, but the music lived up to my high expectations on first listen - only to become a victim of circumstances. 

In the ancient days before I had an iPod, my music collection expanded faster than my free (listening) time could accommodate; some CD's were played no more than a handful of times before being lost in the shuffle.      

At the same time I was acquiring music, I was making duplicates of CD's my roommate liked for living room listening.

Several years and many, many musical moments later, the CD player in my living room went kaput. My roommates and I fell back on an iPod dock for the common area, which made the hundreds of CD's in the living room instantly obsolescent. There they sat, gathering dust for a year or two, until it occurred to me that I could play CD's at work to enliven the day. I brought music which was acceptable to my work mates into the office. Among those lost and found treasures was "Otis Spann Is the Blues."

Once again, I remembered why I'd loved this release.  I can't recall hearing any blues piano so lush and expressive. Though some blues purists place a premium on Spann's forebears, I think this album is a nice bridge between the acoustic blues of the '20s, '30s, and '40s and the electric blues that arose in the '50s and predominated in the '60s. To me, this album is the real Chicago blues, arguably America's greatest cultural achievement (along with jazz).  

The arrangements are bone-simple:  Spann's voice and larger-than-life piano, which
can sound like two instruments, and the clean channel electric guitar of Robert Lockwood, Jr., who had learned his instrument at Robert Johnson's knee. 

Highlights include the opening slow blues "The Hard Way," about Spann's growing up poor in segregated Mississippi, but making out all right.

I came up the hard way
I just about raised myself
I came up the hard way
I just about raised myself
I been in and out of trouble
But I never begged no one for help 

I don't speak educated
Because my people they all have none 
I don't speak educated
'Cause my people they all have none
But I've done just about as good as people
People who have some

"Take a Little Walk with Me" is a rolling 12-bar blues very similar to the classic standard "Sweet Home Chicago."

"Otis in the Dark" may be the liveliest, most rollicking boogie-woogie piano instrumental you'll ever hear.

"Country Boy" reflects the rural underpinnings of blues music, the role sharecroppers and their children had in hatching this new form before it was brought to Chicago and electrified.

I'm just a country boy
A long, long way from home
You know I'm a full country boy
And I'm a long, long way from home
You know people I can't read or write
People please don't do me wrong

You know I've been having trouble everywhere I go

You know I've been having trouble everywhere I go 
Yeah because I'm a country boy 
I've been drifting from door to door

"Beat-Up Team" starts with ornate blues piano phrasing and goes on to suggest that city slickers don't know everything. 

I used to pick a whole lotta cotton baby
People say I used to pull a lot of corn
You know I used to pick a whole lotta cotton people
You know I used to pull a whole lotta corn

I used to try to tell the city boy what to do
But it looked like to me he just couldn't learn

Well when I was drivin' tractor

Baby I had me a whole beat-up team
You know when I was drivin' tractor
You know I had me a whole beat-up team

You know I was down in Mississippi

And people, you know just what I mean

"My Daily Wish" communicates the heartbreak often associated with the blues. The song was written and sung by Robert Lockwood, Jr., so the piano's not as prominent as it is on the rest of the album.  

My daily wish is
To get you off my mind
My daily wish is
Just to get you off my mind

I used to love you pretty baby

But you treated me so unkind

"The Great Northern Stomp" is a swinging instrumental with a ragtime feel. Dr. John would borrow the beginning for "Mess Around" on his classic 1972 album "Gumbo."

"I Got Rambling on My Mind #2" is another tune about love gone sour. Robert Johnson had recorded the original. 

When I first met you baby
You treated me like a king
When I first met you pretty baby
You treated me just like a king

Yes we been together so long

Until my little love don't mean a thing

That's why I've got rambling

I've got travelling all on my mind
I've got rambling
I've got traveling all on my mind

Sadly, Spann's career only lasted ten years past the release of "Otis Spann is the Blues."

In 1970, at the age of 40, Spann succumbed to cancer.   

Luckily for blues fans, Spann left a rich musical legacy that will live on for posterity. 

1 comment:

  1. Excellent tribute to one of the finest...Thank you, Dan!