Unsung Heroes of Soul: Otis Clay

By Dean Farrell

As host of “The Soul Express,” I play the biggest names in 1960s and ‘70s-era soul music. I also mix in the many great soul artists who did not necessarily become household names but were no less talented. This month’s column is about Otis Clay, a Blues Hall of Fame inductee who became popular in Japan.

He was born in Waxhaw, Mississippi, on February 11, 1942. In 1953, the Clays moved to Muncie, Indiana, where Otis joined a local gospel group, the Voices of Hope. He later returned to Mississippi to sing with the Christian Travelers before settling in Chicago in 1957. There, he performed with a series of gospel acts, including the Golden Jubilaires, the Famous Blue Jay Singers, the Holy Wonders, and the Pilgrim Harmonizers. Clay made his first solo recordings for Columbia in 1962, but they were never issued. He later joined the Gospel Songbirds, who recorded in Nashville. Though the group released many singles, Clay appeared on just one.

By 1965, Otis Clay had decided to try secular music and signed with One-derful Records in Chicago. His first outing for the label, “Tired of Falling In and Out of Love,” became a local hit that fall. Clay’s first performance in a big auditorium was in Herb Kent’s Christmas Benefit Show at Chicago’s Capitol Theater in December 1965. His next single, “I’m Satisfied,” made Billboard’s “Bubbling Under the Hot 100” chart in early 1966.

In the summer of 1967, Clay recorded his biggest hit to date. A gospel-drenched heartbreak ballad, “That’s How It Is (When You’re In Love)” climbed to #34 on the Billboard Rhythm & Blues chart. It was written by Cash McCall, an old friend of Clay’s from the Gospel Songbirds. 

One-derful went out of business in mid-1968 and sold Clay’s contract to the Atlantic subsidiary, Cotillion. His initial release was a remake of the Sir Douglas Quintet’s three-year-old hit, “She’s About a Mover.” It made the bottom rungs of the R&B chart and became the only Clay single to make the Billboard Hot 100. When subsequent releases on Cotillion—including the excellent “Hard-Working Woman” and “Is It Over?”–failed to make much noise, Clay moved on to Hi Records in Memphis. There, he worked with producer Willie Mitchell.

Otis Clay made many of his best-known recordings at Hi, including the 1972 original of “Trying to Live My Life Without You.” A live performance by Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band would hit #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1981. Seger even introduced it as “an old Memphis song.” 

Clay remained with Hi until 1977, during which time he put out his first two albums: Trying to Live My Life Without You (1972) and Can’t Take It (1977). He next turned up on the Kayvette label, where Clay had his final charted single, “All Because of Your Love.” He later recorded for the Elka and Rounder labels, and on his own Echo Records, where he did the 1980 original of “The Only Way Is Up.” (A 1988 remake by Yazz & The Plastic Population was a #1 UK hit.)

Clay was a very popular live act—not only in the US, but also in Europe and Japan. He recorded four concert LPs: Live! (1978), Live Again! (1984), Soul Man—Live in Japan (1985), and Respect Yourself (2005). The latter captured his 2003 performance at the Lucerne Blues Festival in Switzerland. In the ‘90s, Clay recorded two albums for Bullseye Blues: I’ll Treat You Right and the Willie Mitchell-produced This Time Around. His 2007 gospel release, Walk a Mile in My Shoes, was Grammy-nominated.

In 2010, Otis Clay received a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail in his hometown of Waxhaw. In 2015, his album with Johnny Rawls, Soul Brothers,won the Blues Blast Award for Soul Album of the Year. It also was nominated for the Blues Music Awards Soul Album of the Year and Living Blues Magazine Blues Album of the Year.And it was chosen as the #6 Blues Album of the Year in the Downbeat Magazine Critics’ Poll.

Rock critic Dave Marsh included “Trying to Live My Life Without You” in his 1989 book, The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made. 

Otis Clay, 73, died in Chicago of a heart attack on January 8, 2016.

Charted singles:

“I’m Satisfied” (1966) Pop #105

“That’s How It Is (When You’re In Love)” (1967) R&B #34, Pop #131

“A Lasting Love” (1967) R&B #48

“She’s About a Mover” (1968) R&B #47, Pop #97

“It Is Over” (1971) Pop #128

“Trying to Live My Life Without You” (1972) R&B #24, Pop #102

“I Didn’t Know the Meaning of Pain” (1973) Pop #144

“If I Could Reach Out” (1973) R&B #73

“All Because of Your Love” (1977) R&B #44

Please check out the Unsung Heroes of Soul blog at

Dean Farrell hosts “The Soul Express” Fridays from 7:00-10:00 p.m. on WECS, 90.1-FM (www.wecsfm.com) and alternating Saturdays from 2:30 – 5:30 p.m. on WRTC, 89.3-FM (www.wrtcfm.com). He plays vintage soul music of the 1960s and ‘70s, everything from #1 hits to long-lost obscurities. Dean’s e-mail address is soulexpress@gmail.com.

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