Don't Let Go The Soul

Deep rhythm and blues has always possessed a special relationship with gospel. The two musics are flip sides of the same coin, a coin minted with conviction, integrity, and a powerful spirituality. You can say what you want about eyes, but in R&B, it's the voice that's the window to the soul.

The ultimate authenticity of soul, however, is difficult to maintain. Some singers have watched the torch flicker with age (Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson), some have gone to that big Muscle Shoals in the sky (Otis Redding, Sam Cooke). But some artists, such as Chicago's Otis Clay -- whose finest moments wed Redding's scorched-earth passion to Solomon Burke's genteel intensity -- are not content to be remembered as the relic of an earlier time. At 50, Clay still practices soul cooking according to the classic recipe: Take raw emotion, add taut guitar, rousing horns, and blistering vocals. Mix well. Serve hot.

Clay's childhood in Waxhaw, a rural Mississippi community an hour south of Clarksdale, was filled with the surging testimony of church music, and young Otis brought the gospel with him when his family moved north, first to Muncie, Indiana, and then finally to Chicago. In the Windy City, Clay cut his teeth in choirs and smaller hallelujah outfits, including the famous Sensational Nightingales, and his local reputation was impressive enough to net a 1962 recording contract with CBS. But CBS never released the material he recorded, and a few years later, in the thick of secular soul's popularity, Clay signed to George Leaver's One-Der-Ful label. At One-Der-Ful, he began to tickle the underside of the national charts, with wrenching, Richter-scale performances of such songs as "I'm Satisfied," "Got to Find a Way," and "That's How It Is," and his popularity continued into the last years of the Sixties, when One-Der-Ful was absorbed into Atlantic Records' Cotillion label.

But it wasn't until the early Seventies that Clay really began to boil over. And, as you might expect, it happened in Memphis, the magical musical city that has galvanized artists from Louis Armstrong to Lyle Lovett. Clay's Memphis education came courtesy of famed producer Willie Mitchell, whose Hi Records carried a powerhouse roster of promising young vocalits such as O.V. Wright, Ann Peebles, and the cherub-faced, cheerfully incomparable Al Green. With the Memphis Horns and the Hi Rhythm Section behind him, Clay found his most productive groove, creating such soul standards as "Precious Precious" and "I Die a Little Each Day." His biggest hit, "Trying to Live My Life Without You," is a bona fide classic, as affecting and epiphanic as Green's "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)," or Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come." By the time he parted ways with Hi in 1974, Clay was an international star.

Then soul stalled. Polarized by the nascent disco and space-funk movements, fans forgot its exquisite pleasures. They stopped buying soul records, stopped attending soul revues. Even James Brown dropped out of sight. Clay kept at his craft, producing his own gospel and soul records and charting with hits such as "Victim of Circumstance" and the stunning "Turn Back the Hands of Time." But it wasn't the same. The low point came in 1975, when an admiring Bob Seger played "Trying to Live My Life Without You" for the Eagles, and those tricky desperados filched its melody wholesale for "The Long Run." (Seger, reportedly mortified at the theft, paid Clay tribute with a faithful cover five years later.)

So while America did the Hustle and waited for the Mothership to land, Clay struck out in search of the frontier. He went west, so far west that it was east. He went to Japan, where the obsession with all things American (not to mention a multi-million-yen bootleg and reissue industry) had catapulted gai-jin soul to the forefront of the national consciousness. In the Land of the Rising Soul, Clay played nonstop, displaying diligent showmanship, impeccable taste, and searing musical support, and if he didn't have quite as many hits as Saduhara Oh, the Japanese public loved him nonetheless.

A triumphant 1983 performance at Tokyo's Yubin Chokin Hall, Otis Clay -- Live in Japan, was released domestically on Rooster Blues Records in 1985 and reissued by Rounder Records this year. Like Al Green's 1979 Tokyo LP, it's one hell of a heavenly document. The Memphis horns stab and soar, legendary guitarist Teenie Hodges sends chords skittering across the stage, and Clay presides over the rapt audience with supreme vocal confidence and control. Songs melt into extended jams, scoop up fragments of other songs, walk the high wire wearing nothing but dancing shoes. The grand finale, a more-powerful-than-a-locomotive "Love and Happiness" that interpolates Sam and Dave's "Soul Man," is simply magnificent. In the decade since Live in Japan, Clay has refused to go easy on the odometer; ably supported by the Chicago Fire, an eleven-piece SWAT team of soul that includes a triple dose of brass and two backup singers, he continues to traverse Europe and Asia, not to mention booking frequent club dates stateside.

This year, Clay released I'll Treat You Right (Rounder), his first R&B LP in almost fifteen years. Less a comeback than a resume, I'll Treat You Right finds him in fine voice, ripping into such red-hot tunes as Johnnie Taylor's "Love Bone," Dennis Walker and Lowell Fulson's "Thanks a Lot," and the gorgeous gospel chestnut "Children Gone Astray." In his ostensible dotage, Clay has refused to surrender his soul, displaying a maturity that allows him to serve both as a historian of the heyday of the Sixties and an ambassador for the genre here in the technology-cluttered Nineties. Surprising? Hardly. After all, this is the man who turned back the hands of time.

OTIS CLAY AND THE CHICAGO FIRE play at 9:00 p.m. Saturday (with Terrance Simien and the Mallet Playboys) and 10:00 p.m. Sunday at Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Tickets cost $10.

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Ben Greenman