Sun 18 Nov 2007
It's not much of a stretch to call Otis Spann the greatest of the post-war Chicago piano men. Perhaps his only rival was Little Johnny Jones, who like Spann, never made it past his his fortieth birthday. Spann was born in Belzoni, Mississippi and inspired by local piano players Friday Ford and Tolley Montgomery, sibling of Little Brother Montgomery. He won a talent contest at age eight and began playing local vaudeville acts. After his mother died in the mid-40's he headed to Chicago where his father and aunt lived. After playing with Morris Pejoe and others, he heard from Jimmy Rogers that Muddy Waters needed a piano player and he was promptly hired in 1951. Between 1953 and 1969 and played on the bulk of Waters' Chess recordings. He also became a key session pianist backing Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Lowell Fulson, Junior Wells, Chuck Berry and many others.
Starting in 1960 he launched a solo career parallel to his day job with Muddy Waters. Despite being an almost daily presence in the Chess studios, he cut only two sessions as leader. His own Chess output was limited to a 1954 single, "It Must Have Been the Devil," that featured B.B. King on guitar, and sessions in 1954 and 1956 that remained in the can for decades. Chess may not have been impressed but the sides hold up well and I've decided to play them all for this feature. Spann cut albums for numerous labels including Candid, Prestuge, Bluesway, Storyville, Testament, Spivey and Vanguard among others. Spann rarely sounded less than inspired but he was occasionally ill served by his record companies and his sidemen. Unqualified successes include his Candid recordings with Robert Lockwood (issued in it's entirety with bonus cuts, but out of print, as the Complete Candid Recordings: Otis Spann/Lightnin' Hopkins Sessions) as well as those for Storyville and two albums for Bluesway (issued together on Down To Earth: The Bluesway Recordings) backed by the Muddy Waters band. Also quite good are The Blues of Otis Spann, hailed as one of the best blues albums ever made in Britain and The Biggest Thing Since Colossus (reissued with many bonus cuts as the 2-CD set The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions) finding Spann backed by three-fifths of Fleetwood Mac. Less successful are recordings made for Vanguard, Prestige and the two albums for Spivey which have never been issued on CD.
Mahalia Lucille Jenkins began as a church gospel singer in Mississippi and continued to practice when her family moved to Chicago around 1952. She met Otis Spann in the 1960’s. The two began a musical collaboration and would later marry. Lucille and Otis performed regularly at college gigs and would record together until Otis passed in 1970. Lucille continued to work in music performing at the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival and making a few recordings before passing in 1994.
Lucille was a strong, gospel inflected vocalist who at times could be quite affective while at other times her vocals leaned to the histrionic side. Her 1960's recordings are all in the company of her husband and she's featured on recordings Otis did for Bluesway, Vanguard and Spivey. A couple of her best sides, "Chains of Love" and "Love With A Feelin’" (both on Chicago Blues Masters Vol. 3) were cut for World Pacific in 1968, and both featured in our show. There is also Last Call, recorded live in 1970, three weeks before Otis Spann passed, featuring Lucille taking all the vocals. Overall this is a depressing listening experience and not the way anyone would choose to remember Spann. In the 1970's Lucille sang "Dedicated to Otis" at the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival which is on the 2-LP companion album, cut her only album, Cry Before I Go, for Bluesway in 1973 and waxed the 45's Country Girl Returns Part 1 & 2 and Woman's Lib for Torrid.