Otis Clay, one of America’s premier singers of soul and gospel music, was born in Waxhaw on February 11, 1942. His storied journey to international renown began at the age of four at the Tree of Life Missionary Baptist Church here, where he attended school and sang with a family gospel group. Clay first performed professionally with gospel quartets in Chicago. He started recording soul music in the 1960s and maintained a unique and successful career singing both sacred and secular music.
Otis Clay began singing bass in a group called the Christian Travelers with a brother, cousin, and two nephews here in Waxhaw in 1946. The Clay children worked the family farm and went to school at the church that was just a few yards from their home. The Clays moved back and forth from Waxhaw over the years, living also in Clarksdale and later in Muncie, Indiana, where Otis sang with another family group, the Morning Glories, and with a local quartet, the Voices of Hope. By 1956 he was singing with the D. Z. Jackson Chorus at his grandfather’s church in Chicago, and after one more trip back to Waxhaw, he returned to Chicago to stay in 1957. As his reputation grew, he sang with a series of gospel quartets, including the Golden Jubilaires, the Blue Jay Singers, the Holy Wonders, the Pilgrim Harmonizers, the Gospel Songbirds, and the Sensational Nightingales. With the Blue Jays in 1960 he got his first professional experience touring the country and also expanded his repertoire beyond religious songs, as the historic quartet was advertised as singing “Old Negro Spirituals and Plantation Melodies.” He recorded as lead vocalist for the Gospel Songbirds in 1964, but by that time he had already secretly tried his hand at rhythm & blues with a recording session for Columbia that remained unissued.
Clay’s public move into soul music came in 1965 at One-derful! Records, a Chicago label owned by another former Mississippian, George Leaner. With hits on One-derful!, Cotillion, Hi, and Kayvette Records, most notably the 1972 Hi single “Trying to Live My Life Without You,” Clay established himself as a quintessential performer in the genre that came to be known as “deep soul.” In its sincere, gospel-rooted style and in Clay’s warm and uplifting approach, his secular music was often not far removed from the religious songs he continued to sing in churches and gospel concerts. His crowd-pleasing, inspirational live performances won him new audiences at blues clubs and festivals and at enthusiastic soul music gatherings in Japan, Europe, and, in 2010, China. Clay’s engaging vocal talents brought him additional acclaim as a guest singer on albums with blues, soul, rock, and gospel performers including Roy Buchanan, Magic Slim, Eddy Clearwater, Don Covay, Tyrone Davis, Johnny Rawls, and Clarence Fountain, and on CD tributes to acts as varied as Led Zeppelin, Duke Ellington, Robert Johnson, Janis Joplin, Aerosmith, and Van Morrison. Clay also sang at funeral services for Albert King, Tyrone Davis, Junior Parker, Magic Sam, Sunnyland Slim, and other blues and soul singers. In October 2010 Clay celebrated his fiftieth anniversary in show business.
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