Otis Spann (March 21, 1924 or 1930 – April 24, 1970) was an American blues musician, whom many consider to be the leading postwar Chicago blues pianist.
Sources differ over Spann’s early years. Some state that he was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1930, but the researchers Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc concluded, on the basis of census records and other official information, that he was born in 1924 in Belzoni, Mississippi.
Spann’s father was, according to some sources, a pianist called Friday Ford. His mother, Josephine Erby, was a guitarist who had worked with Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith, and his stepfather, Frank Houston Spann, was a preacher and musician. One of five children, Spann began playing the piano at the age of seven, with some instruction from Friday Ford, Frank Spann, and Little Brother Montgomery.
By the age of 14, he was playing in bands in the Jackson area. He moved to Chicago in 1946, where he was mentored by Big Maceo Merriweather. Spann performed as a solo act and with the guitarist Morris Pejoe, working a regular spot at the Tic Toc Lounge. Spann became known for his distinctive piano style. He replaced Merriweather as Muddy Waters’s piano player in late 1952 and participated in his first recording session with the band on September 24, 1953. He continued to record as a solo artist and session player with other musicians, including Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf, during his tenure with the group. He stayed with Muddy Waters until 1968.
Otis Spann with Muddy Waters, Big Moose Walker and Sammy Lawhorn:
Spann’s work for Chess Records includes the 1954 single “It Must Have Been the Devil” backed with “Five Spot”, with B.B. King and Jody Williams on guitars. During his time at Chess he played on a few of Chuck Berry’s early records, including the studio version of “You Can’t Catch Me”. In 1956, he recorded two unreleased tracks with Big Walter Horton and Robert Lockwood. He recorded a session with the guitarist Robert Lockwood, Jr. and vocalist St. Louis Jimmy in New York on August 23, 1960, which was issued on the albums Otis Spann Is the Blues and Walking the Blues. A 1963 session for Storyville Records was recorded in Copenhagen. He worked with Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton on recordings for Decca and with James Cotton for Prestige in 1964.
Otis Spann and James Cotton rehearsing in Muddy Waters’s basement
in Chicago in February 1965:
The Blues Is Where It’s At, Spann’s 1966 album for ABC-Bluesway, includes contributions from George “Harmonica” Smith, Muddy Waters, and Sammy Lawhorn. The Bottom of the Blues (1967), featuring Spann’s wife, Lucille Spann (June 23, 1938 – August 2, 1994), was released by Bluesway. He worked on albums with Buddy Guy, Big Mama Thornton, Peter Green, and Fleetwood Mac in the late 1960s. In 2012, Silk City Records released Someday which featured live and studio performances from 1967 produced by the noted blues guitarist Son Lewis.
DVD recordings of Spann include his performances at the Newport Jazz Festival (1960), the American Folk Blues Festival (1963), the Blues Masters (1966), and the Copenhagen Jazz Festival (1968).
Spann died of liver cancer in Chicago in 1970. He was buried in Burr Oak Cemetery, in Alsip, Illinois. His grave was unmarked for almost thirty years, until Steve Salter (president of the Killer Blues Headstone Project) wrote a letter to Blues Revue magazine, saying, “This piano great is lying in an unmarked grave. Let’s do something about this deplorable situation”. Blues enthusiasts from around the world sent donations to purchase a headstone. On June 6, 1999, the marker was unveiled in a private ceremony. The stone is inscribed, “Otis played the deepest blues we ever heard – He’ll play forever in our hearts”.
In 1972, the site of the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival was named “Otis Spann Memorial Field”. That same year, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau called Spann “the greatest modern blues pianist”. He later included Spann’s 1972 Barnaby compilation Walking the Blues in “A Basic Record Library” of 1950s and 1960s music, published in Christgau’s Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981).
Spann was posthumously elected to the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980.
On November 13, 2012, Spann (along with cousin and fellow pianist Little Johnnie Jones) received a Mississippi Blues Trail Marker plaque, erected at 547 South Roach Street in Jackson, Mississippi where the family lived in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Biggest Thing Since Colossus is an album by American blues musician Otis Spann, released in 1969. The album is also notable for the fact that Spann’s backing band on this occasion were members of Fleetwood Mac, who were touring in America at the time. Spann had been involved in the recording of the Blues Jam at Chess album, and a rapport had been struck between Spann and the British band, which led to their participation on Spann’s new album.
It was agreed beforehand that Spann’s friend and longtime associate S.P. Leary would play drums on the album, and Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood did not take part in the recording. Guitarists Peter Green and Danny Kirwan, and bassist John McVie all contributed to the sessions.
“Walkin'” was released as a single in some countries, with “Temperature Is Rising (98.8°F)” (a different version to that found on the album) on the B-side. Another track was recorded at the sessions, “Blues for Hippies”, which was not included on the album. An expanded version was released in 2006 on a double CD (Otis Spann, The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions) with all tracks from the sessions plus the single ‘Bloody Murder’ and both single and album versions of ‘Temperature is Rising’ (wikipedia)
In January of 1969, British power blues quintet Fleetwood Mac came to Chess Records studios to jam with the likes of Willie Dixon, S.P. Leary, Honeyboy Edwards, and longtime Muddy Waters’ pianist Otis Spann. The sessions were so rich and fruitful that three-fifths of the Mac (specifically bassist John McVie and guitarists Peter Green and Danny Kirwin) impressed Spann enough to cut a record with them at the same sessions. While the classic “Country Girl” and a seven-minute “Someday Soon Baby” (which features a lengthy intro from Green on which Spann can be heard barely off mic telling the rest of the band to “let him play on”) ended up on the Mac’s Blues Jam at Chess double set: remaining cuts included “Dig You” and “Walkin'” and are a near perfect match of Spann’s exciting, emotive singing and the Mac’s youthful muscle. The Biggest Thing Since Colossus was released on Mac manager/producer/strongman Mike Vernon’s London-based Blue Horizon label. (by John Duffy)
Absolutely essential. The chance to hear Peter Green and his cohorts from the blues-era Fleetwood Mac playing with Spann simply can’t be missed. Beautifully recorded. A disc that stays in your collection forever. (by James Coburn)
Peter Green (guitar)
Danny Kirwan (guitar)
S.P. Leary (drums)
John McVie (bass)
Otis Spann (piano, vocals)
01. My Love Depends on You (Spann) 5.24
02. Walkin’ (Spann) 2.56
03. It Was A Big Thing (Spann) 3.29
04. Temperature Is Rising (100.2°F) (Spann) 6.15
05. Dig You (Spann) 3.07
06. No More Doggin’ (Gordon) 3.03
07. Ain’t Nobody’s Business (Witherspoon) 5.17
08. She Needs Some Loving (Spann) 3.11
09. I Need Some Air (Spann) 4.43
10. Someday Baby (Spann) 3.02