Remembering Otis Spann
Otis Spann w/ FM ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business’
Otis Spann was born on March 21, 1930 into a musical family (his mother played guitar, his father, piano), in Jackson, Mississippi. His informal schooling on piano began around the age of eight, under the supervision of a local musician named Friday Ford.
By fourteen he was playing county juke joints and house parties. His style was also informed from close listening to 78s by players such as Little Brother Montgomery and Big Maceo Merriweather.
After his mother’s passing, he moved to Chicago (circa 1946, ’47) where his father had settled. Hoping to find a foothold in the city, he received further instruction, from Merriweather himself, and began playing club gigs with guitarist Morris Pejoe.
On the recommendation of Jimmy Rogers, Spann joined Muddy Waters’ band in 1951 and the now unbeatable ensemble of Waters, guitarist Rogers, Little Walter, Spann and drummer Elgin Evans became informally known as the Headhunters, capable of “cutting the heads” of any other band in town
Despite their reputation as a live band, it took almost two years, before Leonard Chess finally allowed Waters to bring Spann into the studio with him. ‘Blow Wind Blow’ and ‘Mad Love’ were the first recordings to feature Spann’s rumbling bass and rippling right hand fills.
As if to make up for lost time, Spann soon became one the Chess brothers “go-to” session players, backing bandmates Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter on their sessions; adding yet another layer to the dense sound of many of Howlin’ Wolf’s sides and underlining the dark wit of Sonny Boy Williamson II’s songs.
Easily adapting to changing styles, he also played on some of the earliest recordings of seminal rock ‘n rollers Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.
Spann had only one (poorly distributed) single released under his own name to show for all his years with Chess, but his appearance at the July 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, leading the Muddy Waters band for a set before joining them in backing Waters, was strong enough that he was in the studio cutting his first LP, for the Candid label, aptly titled “Otis Spann is the Blues” the following month.
The 1963 American Folk Blues Festival tour found Spann now traveling the world and he recorded an LP, “Good Morning Mr. Blues” during a stop in Copenhagen that year. Returning to England with the Muddy Waters Band a year later, he recorded an LP for Decca, “The Blues of Otis Spann”, under Mike Vernon’s supervision.
Vernon would work with Spann again in July of 1968 on an LP for Johnny Shines and twice more shortly after the New Year in 1969; first as part of the ensemble backing Fleetwood Mac for their “Blues Jam in Chicago” sessions and a few days later in New York City, with Green, Kirwan and McVie backing Spann for his “The Biggest Thing Since Colossus” (S.P. Leary was on the drum stool).
Spann obviously felt comfortable with Vernon and I believe that Spann may have seen a bit of himself in Green, as a musician who did not feel the need to always be in the spotlight.
As with Spann’s piano and Little Walter’s harmonica, Green’s guitar is an integral component of any piece he plays on; his personality and signature tone are fully on display but always at the service of the song.
Though understandably overshadowed by his piano skills, Spann’s vocals are often equally impressive; as with his playing, there is no filter between him and listener. Spann always sounds as if he is “making it up as he goes along”, (and at times, he is) truly feeling the words that he is singing. He sings and plays from his heart, and there is never a sense of his forcing, or shaping what comes out to fit a preplanned pattern.
Vernon’s intimate production adds to the sense of immediacy as it captures Spann’s voice fraying as he pushes it past its limited range.
Otis Spann: piano & vocal / Peter Green: guitar
John McVie: bass / S.P. Leary: drums
Recorded January 09, 1969 Tempo Sound Studios, NYC, NY –
released “The Biggest Thing Since Colossus” (Blue Horizon 1969)
Available on: Otis Spann The Complete
Blue Horizon Sessions (Sony / BMG 2006)
Spann’s rippling keyboards and Leary’s mix of rolls and paradiddles suggest a man’s resurfacing at the end of a binge; he is finding it a little difficult to walk, blinded by the daylight and the sidewalk’s refusal to stay still, but taking small steps, placing one foot purposefully in front of the other he manages to hold his head upright and not fall.
Leary stiffens Spann’s resolve with a little march before he begins to sing,
“Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord…”
There is a brief pause, as if he were waiting for an answer; not receiving one, he calls him again.
He seems to take the ensuing silence as an affirmation of his personal belief that how he chooses to live his life “…ain’t nobody’s business” but his own.
There is no fear or self-pity in his petition; he could just as well have been calling up from the street to a friend who lived on the second floor of an apartment building. He knows that he has done things he will need to atone for, but nothing that he needs to be ashamed of; he knows the day will come when judgment will be passed on him from above, but until then, down here, he has to answer only to himself.
The original lyrics covered a wide variety of behaviors that the singer could indulge in if they chose to; Spann pares these down to his relationship with his woman.
Green laid low during the intro and opening verse but as that verse comes to its close, Green’s playing becomes more expansive and forceful as he builds towards his solo.
As if he just couldn’t contain himself, Spann suddenly comes back on mike, and says with an almost paternal pride “…watch my guitar player now.”
Green’s tone has more “grit” than he usually uses, seeking to approximate Spann’s rough-hewn vocal and the humanity that it conveys. As Green plays, Spann echoes his lines in a beautiful call and response pattern.
Spann sings another verse and then takes a solo turn of his, his right hand dazzling the listener as it dances across the keys.
One could question if it is his “Lord” or his woman that he is speaking to in the final verse as he explains that he sees no contradiction in spending all day in church on Sunday and only to cabaret (used here as a verb) all day Monday.
Whomever he is talking to, he makes it known that he is not asking for their understanding or forgiveness.
Spann brings a unique spin to this oft recorded song, detailing an otherwise powerless man’s attempt to claim some measure of independence, at least in his private life, and imbues it with a quiet dignity.
*First recorded in 1922, there were at least seven versions released the following year, with Bessie Smith’s far out-selling the rest and setting the standard for the many who followed in the century after her recording.