Otis Spann - Biography

By J Poet


Otis Spann is considered the greatest Chicago blues pianist ever, and although he had a short solo career, it’s his work as piano man for the Muddy Waters band between 1952 and 1969, and house pianist for Chess Records that made him a legend. Spann was just hitting his stride as a solo artist when he died of cancer in 1970. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, and his aggressive piano style is still the template for blues piano players today.


Spann started playing piano when he was five, tutored by a neighbor named Friday Ford. Ford sat the young Spann on his knee and guided his hands over the keys. Spann’s stepfather was so impressed, he bought the boy a piano. At eight Spann won a talent contest at the Alamo Theater in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. This led to a job playing between acts at the theater, dressed in a tuxedo. He soaked up the sound of local blues players like Coot Davis, Tommy Johnson, Leroy Carr, and Big Maceo (Merriweather).


In high school Spann was a boxer, and turned pro on graduation, winning 28 of his 48 bouts by knocking out his opponent. He was drafted in 1946 and moved to Chicago when he was discharged. He worked days and played in bars and for house parties at night. In 1949 he started a band that became the house group at the Tick Tock Lounge from 1950 to 1953. He met and learned from pianists like Roosevelt Sykes, Little Brother Montgomery, and Sunnyland Slim.


In 1952 Muddy Waters hired Spann for his band. In the next 16 years, Spann played all of Waters’ classic singles and albums including “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and Muddy Waters at Newport (1960 Chess, 2001 Chess) wowing the crowd with his keyboard work on “Got My Mojo Workin’” and delivering lead vocals on “Goodbye Newport Blues.”


Willie Dixon, the resident producer at Chess, made Spann a member of the label’s house band and he played on sessions with Sonny Boy Williamson Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Buddy Guy and Dixon himself. He contributed to classic songs like Howlin’ Wolf’s "No Place to Go," "How Long," "Forty-Four," and "Evil (Is Goin' On)," Bo Diddley’s "I'm a Man" and "Bo Diddley," Chuck Berry’s "You Can't Catch Me," and Sonny Boy Williamson’s "Don't Start Me to Talkin."


In 1958 Waters and Spann toured England (Waters couldn’t afford to bring the whole band) and cut Collaboration (2005 Tomato), noted for Spann’s amazing fills and syncopated runs behind his boss.


In 1960 Spann, backed by Junior Lockwood, made his first solo album, Otis Spann is the Blues (1960 Candid). He was praised for his singing, which critics compared favorably to his piano work. In 1963 he made two albums for Storyville Piano Blues and Portrait in Blues. In 64, while on tour with the Waters’ band in England, he made The Blues of Otis Spann (1964 Decca, 1993 See For Miles UK) with Waters’ and a young British guitarist named Eric Clapton. Back home he cut The Blues Never Die (1965 Prestige, 1990 Fantasy Original Blues Classics), again with Waters’ band backing him up. He also played with the Waters’ band behind John Lee Hooker on Live at the Cafe Au-Go-Go (1966 Verve, 1999 MCA).


In 1966 and 67 he cut a few solo albums for Bluesway including the live The Blues Is Where It's At and The Bottom of the Blues. These tracks and more are included on Down to Earth, The Bluesway Recordings (1995 MCA.) In 1969 he took part in the sessions for Fathers and Sons (Chess), an album that paired up the old guard with their young acolytes and included Waters, Paul Butterfield, Michael Bloomfield and Buddy Miles.


Spann left Waters in late 69 and made Cryin’ Time (1969 Vanguard) with guitarist Barry Melton from Country Joe and The Fish. He also reunited with Fleetwood Mac, who he’d met in London when he was playing with the Waters’ band and cut The Biggest Thing Since Colossus (1969 Blues Horizon UK, 1995 Columbia) which features guitarist Peter Green at his bluesy best. In 1970 Spann played on Junior Wells’ South Side Blues Jam (Delmark) with Buddy Guy and started booking dates for an extended US tour, including a headlining gig at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. Unhappily, he was diagnosed with cancer and died on April 24 that same year.


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