There’s many names that easily get buried as time passes and history becomes more dense. In the music industry there’s many pillars that held it up. Musicians from prominent drummers, pianists and saxophonists worth noting their shining work on records. Of course there’s our favorite singers. We don’t do much with the legacy of prolific singers and songwriters tho. Over the years I’ve highlighted a number of my favorites.
Today is Clyde Otis’s turn.
Most often in conjunction with his partner Belford Hendricks, he is one of the architects that bridged the gap between big band, jazz, gospel, pop and created the boundaries of Soul Music we’re most familiar with in the late 1950’s.
Born September 11th, 1924 in Mississippi, Clyde relocated to New York City after serving as a Marine in World War II. Although he didn’t initially find success in the recording industry as a performer, he soon turned to writing, and by 1956, crafted the Top 20 hit “That’s All There Is To That” for Nat King Cole. Cole, being a star of heavy stature (and of soon to be network television fame) was just the kind of boost & recognition that Clyde Otis needed. His move to becoming A&R Director for Mercury Records while blazing a path of hits for songwriting collaborator Brook Benton solidified his credibility at crafting elegant, crossover pop records without distilling the essence and character of the performers he enshrined.
He next applied this approach to Queen of The Blues, Ruler of the Jukeboxes, Dinah Washington. Dinah, while ebbing closer to crossover fame based on her sterling critical standing, did not have a mainstream Pop hit that made it into the Pop Top 20 in her up to that point 15 year career. Between her own remakes of stalwart tunes with the Clyde Otis touch & her duets with Brook Benton making the Pop Top 20 made her the household name she always deserved to be, despite critiques that it completely distilled her sound.
From there on out, most Black Stars wanting a little Mercurial Magic sought Clyde’s touch. Rarely did the direction he took them in failed them. Notably he quickly turned out massive pop hits for Sarah Vaughan and Damita Jo at the turn of the decade. The string laced, sprightly songs & arrangements he crafted with Belford Hendricks were widely imitated as well. You can decidedly hear the influence on Etta James’s seminal At Last LP. As you can hear it on The Shirelles first run of hits, especially on their Sing To Trumpet & Strings LP. Even in the early days at Motown, for Mary Wells and The Miracles, you can point to when they could play more adult when the second bath of hit singles came blasting out of Hitsville U.S.A. wrapped in gossamer strings (“What’s So Good About Goodbye?” “I Don’t Want To Take A Chance” & “Jamie” for instance).
Which is to say, his influence was so large that it was also rather short-lived once a bunch of bastard children appeared on the nation’s airwaves by 1962. His last big launch of a career was prototype ‘blue eyed soul’ singer Timi Yuro, and when you weigh the number of hits she had versus how many singles she recorded, you can see that Clyde’s way of success was on the wane.
His prominence in the legacy of Mercury Records was overshadowed by the promotion of Quincy Jones to vice president of the label in 1961, and the 1950’s leaning tendencies of his production style lead to lesser returns that the label, or he himself, was used to just a few years earlier. As he left to strike it out on his own, he found consistent success harder to come by.
By the time he was given the task of moving Aretha Franklin at least into the same lane as Brenda Holloway and Dionne Warwick during 1964, he found himself behind the tide, and barely able to place her in the Hot 100.
It doesn’t mean, and as this mix details, that Clyde Otis packed it in. Indeed, he spent the rest of the 1960’s following projects far beyond the genre scope that he had found himself affixed to that had bought him the most commercial success as a dictator of musical taste. Indeed the select projects that he focused on, notably the dedication and care he gave to the career of Jean Wells on Calla Records, is some of the most underrated soul music of the 1960’s. He also spend a hefty time in Nashville dabbling in Country & Western.
As he lead by example (as the career transition he found himself in happened in his 40’s) we can listen, and be inspired to take even more risks with what we do with our lives. The results of those flights of fancy may be of huge influence that last year after year.
1) Dorothy Dandridge – Smooth Operator
2) Dinah Washington – Early Every Morning
3) Sarah Vaughan – You’re My Baby
4) Brook Benton – Kiddio
5) Clyde McPhatter – That’s Enough
6) Bobby Darin – Hush (Someone’s Calling My Name)
7) Gina Boyer – Say It From Your Heart
8) Timi Yuro – Count Everything
9) Damita Jo – Forgive
10) Ruth Brown – I’ll Step Aside
11) The Impressions – Come Back, My Love
12) Dinah Washington – Show Me The Way
13) Jewel Brown – If You Have No Real Objections
14) Nat King Cole – That’s All There Is To That
15) The Essex – Out of Sight, Out of Mind
16) Mary Wells – Looking Back
17) Johnny Mathis – Call Me
18) Betty O’Brien – You Can’t Stop Me From Dreaming
19) Barbara & Brenda – Hurtin’ Inside
20) Beverly Ann Gibson – A Three Dollar Bill
21) Vernon & Jewel – That’s A Rockin’ Good Way (To Mess Around & Fall In Love)
22) Peaches & Herb – Baby, You’ve Got What It Takes
23) Jean Wells – Putting The Best On The Outside
24) Peggy March – He’s Back Again
25) Les Tres Femmes – What’s A Matter Baby?
26) Clyde McPhatter – The Mixed Up Cup
27) Clarence Carter – ‘Til I Can’t Take It Anymore
28) Jean Wells – Sit Down & Cry
29) Tammy Wynette – It’s Just A Matter Of Time
30) Aretha Franklin – Remember Me
31) Gloria Parker – I’m In Your Corner
32) Lynn Sobey – You’ll Know I’m Around
33) JoAnn Garrett – We Can Learn Together
34) Mavis Staples – Endlessly
35) Martha Reeves & The Vandellas – Take A Look
36) Big Maybelle – This Bitter Earth