Among other things, the history of soul music is the story of a handful of regional labels that flourished 20 to 30 years ago, releasing strings of sublime 45s before the long night of disco fell. Their passing success owed a lot to house bands such as Booker T. and the MGs at Stax and the Hi rhythm section, young groups that achieved an easy synergy that ultimately flattered singers like Otis Redding and Al Green.
In a converted Memphis, Tennessee, theatre, the Hi session players fueled a slew of simmering, soul-into-funk singles by Green, O.V. Wright, Syl Johnson and Otis Clay. Hi producer Willie Mitchell instinctively knew better than to clutter his label's songs with too much sugar; instead, he created what now seems to be a timeless sound, composed of raw, yearning male vocals over spare brass, a thick bottom and a steady midtempo beat. Al Green sang on some of the best of those Mitchell sides, which have been steadily reissued, first on vinyl and then on CD. Others by Johnson, Clay and Ann Peebles, are sprinkled throughout the recent three-disc Hi Times boxed set.
But now, more than a decade since Otis Clay was lionized by Japanese soul fans, his work has been collected domestically and digitally by Right Stuff/EMI. The title, The Best of: The Hi Records Years, is thankfully a little deceptive, since the 23 tracks include at least three rare, smoking singles that predate Clay's Hi tenure.
Clay's muscular, gravelly gospel-drenched stylings make him one of the last great soul/blues singers, in a class with Little Milton, Bobby Bland and a few others. Listening to the tracks on this new collection, you have to wonder why Clay isn't better known. If there's any justice, the new Right Stuff set, by offering a detailed look at the singer's prime, may go a little way toward remedying that anonymity.
A Mississippi native, Clay, now 54, grew up tuning in to country music on Nashville radio. He eventually sang with gospel groups around the South and Midwest, including the Blue Jay Quartet, and, after a move to Chicago, the Sensational Nightingales. When he crossed over to secular music in Chicago in the early '60s, he cut a string of steamy soul singles that owed more to his Southern heritage than the city's preferred, smooth-vocal confections, including "That's How It Is (When You're in Love)" for the One-derful label, rerecorded at Hi and included on the new Best of set. Clay was scrambling for a hit in those days, so his near misses must have counted less to him then than they do to soul fans now. In retrospect, he was making rough, raw and shaking soul of the first water, even if he wasn't on the charts.
Traded to Atlantic's Cotillion label in 1968, Clay traveled south to the legendary Muscle Shoals studios to cut a handful of tracks, including a balls-out cover of "She's About a Mover," that far outpaced the Sir Douglas Quintet original, and "I'm Qualified," a "Midnight Hour"-style rave-up. Both are included on the Right Stuff collection. His career picked up a little when he signed to Hi in '71 and started working with the killer house band heard on Al Green's hits: drummers Al Jackson and Howard Grimes; Hodges brothers Leroy, Charles and Teenie on bass, keyboards and guitar; the resident Memphis Horns; and backing vocalists Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes.
Mitchell, a trumpeter and the producer and engineer on nearly all Hi tracks, had an aural vision that identifies his studio's cuts as surely as fingerprints. It seems so simple--a place for everything and everything laconically in its place--and, yet, it's one that eluded most other would-be impresarios. Mitchell already had a hot hand with Green when Clay showed up on his doorstep, and the Hi formula paid off quickly as he and Clay dented the charts in 1972 with the midtempo ballad "Trying to Live My Life Without You." Clay reached No. 24 on the R&B charts with that song, his personal best. Bob Seger covered it in a faithful but less soulful version nine years later and took it to No. 5 on the mainstream pop charts.
The mass market was no judge of the fire or hooks in Clay's work. It's worth the price of the new CD just to hear him howl on "I Can't Take It," a Don Bryant-penned number, never released as a single. Clay sounds like a sled dog dropped from his pack.
The pre-Hi Clay cuts tend to rock harder, but the Memphis tracks--the majority of the album--really showcase the Hi house band's strengths. On "I Love You, I Need You," Teenie Hodges plays one of the most restrained solo-guitar parts in the history of rock or soul--a single note softly repeated, echoing his virtuosic minimal performance on the long version of Al Green's "Beware." On Clay's "Too Many Hands," the Memphis Horns break fast and bop harder than most jazz players play in heaven. And throughout Grimes keeps time with a slightly lazy inflection, unmistakably live, his snare and high-hat high up in the mix.