Born: March 21, 1930 | Died: 1970 Primary Instrument: Piano
The music of Otis Spann is immediate and urgent, completely clear in its content. Otis is one of the great and thoroughly authentic blues storytellers. Into his blues piano playing Otis put his soul. As part of the Muddy Waters' band he could frequently be found in Chicago's south side performing nightly with Muddy, who treated Spann as his protégé and referred to him as his half brother. And under Waters guidance, Otis Spann emerged as a top-notched musician, and took command of his own sessions as well.
Otis Spann, originally from Jackson, Mississippi, was born March 21, 1930. He was of a younger generation than fellow pianists Sunnyland Slim, Roosevelt Sykes or Memphis Slim,but his early musical tutelage was very similar. In Spann's case, he was inspired to play the piano at the age of eight by a local pianist Friday Ford. A few years later his ability had developed sufficiently for him to enter, and win, a competition playing and singing songs like Backwater Blues and Four O'clock Blues. The chronology of the next few years has become confused by Spann's penchant for giving conflicting information in interviews. Over time, a lot of what he had to tell interviewers changed to suit the circumstances and what he thought would be believed. It appears correct, though, that he was playing in local bands around Jackson from the age of 14, moving to Chicago when his mother died in 1947.
Spann first become a member of Morris Pejoe's band and was asked by Muddy Waters to replace Big Maceo Merriweather on club dates following Maceo's stroke, eventually joining Muddy permanently in 1952.
He's remembered today as perhaps the finest blues piano player of the '50s and '60s. And of course, much of his reputation derives from his long tenure (from 1952 to 1969) in the most formidable blues aggregation of all time, the Muddy Waters Band. Spann played on many classic Muddy cuts from 1953 onwards, and as a member of the Chess family, on numerous tracks from other Chess recording artists like Chuck Berry, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf, etc. Strangely enough, and unlike other Muddy alumni like Little Walter and Jimmy Rogers, he was never really offered the chance the record as a leader by the Chess brothers. He released one single in 1954 (It Must Have Been the Devil, with B.B. King on guitar), cut a few tracks that were shelved until the 90s, and remained a Chess sideman. His big break came after the Muddy Waters' “Live at Newport” release from 1960, where his stunning boogies and one lead vocal track by him showed his potential as a recording artist.
It was also in 1960 that he recorded his first full-length album, the extraordinary “Otis Spann is the Blues,” with Robert Jr. Lockwood on guitar, for a brand new company, Candid Records. This is considered his finest effort.
He went on in the ‘60’s to record some fine records for Storyville, “Piano Blues,” Portrait in Blues.” Decca, “The Blues of Otis Spann.” Prestige, “The Blues Never Die!” He did sessions for Testament, some memorable Vanguard records, and recorded for other labels. A lot of his work has been reissued, and is available.
Just as Spann's superb and singular talent was being recognized as worthy of far more than sideman status, his health started to fail. Contemporary reports tended to suggest that this was alcohol related but his death in Cook County Hospital in Chicago in 1970 was through cancer following a series of debilitating illnesses.
Probably best remembered for the much needed subtle and complementary support he provided for Muddy Water's music, both on stage and in the recording studio, Spann nonetheless proved himself a fine recording artist in his own right. A variety of circumstances prevented him from demonstrating this particular skill as often as many of us would have liked.
Otis Spann was an authentic blues legend, and one hell of a piano player.
Source: James Nadal