Blues legend has it that at the corner of Highway 61 and Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, otherwise known as the “Devil’s Crossroads,” a young Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in return for the ability to play the bejeezus out of his guitar. Well, I’m here to make the case that there was another young sprout at the crossroads that day, only he was a pianist. His name was Otis Spann.
Spann was an American blues pianist and singer born sometime between 1924 and 1930 (no one knows exactly when) in Mississippi. He’s recognized as one of the great sidemen of the genre and one of the premier postwar Chicago blues pianists.
Although he developed a fruitful career as a singer and frontman in his own right, Spann was perhaps best known for his performances alongside greater blues legends like Buddy Guy, Big Mama Thornton, Bo Diddley, and Howlin’ Wolf. Yet he was most notably a member of Muddy Waters’ band from 1952 to 1968. It’s a wonder he had any time to record solo albums.
He also appeared on several early Chuck Berry recordings and had a twilight project, collaborating with members of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac (the same Fleetwood Mac that would later become a multi-platinum tour de force in the 1970s sans Green) which culminated in a studio jam called The Biggest Thing Since Colossus.
Spann’s playing combines equal parts ragtime lightning virtuosity and Mississippi farmhouse drawl. Raised in a musical family and drawing heavy influence from stride pianists such as Fats Waller, Spann moved to Chicago in 1946, where he was mentored by pianist Big Maceo Merriweather. He was rumored to have already developed a distinctive style during his early teen years playing in bands in Jackson, Mississippi. Hint, hint: deal with the devil?
Hopscotching between rapid-fire 88s and delicate growls, his sound continued to evolve up until his premature death from liver cancer in 1970.
Let’s listen to some of Spann’s electrifying, down-to-business bluesing. (Interestingly, the word “blues” appears in 11 out of his total 22 album titles).
+ Read more on Flypaper: “The Power of the Blues: Finding Rhythm and Compassion in Music”
“Must Have Been the Devil” (1962)
Well, this is a convenient song title to begin with (even though we’re really just going in chronological order)! Recorded for Chess Records after a late-night party with B.B. King on guitar, “Must Have Been the Devil” is Chicago blues at it’s rudest. The distorted vocals explode from the speakers like a guerilla fighter springing from cover in the dead of a steamy Delta night.
The guitar and harmonica squeal and assault each other, battling for treble centerstage with rock-solid accompaniment from the rhythm section. Snarling, blood pumping, and sweaty, this under-three-minute barn burner twists and turns through the tried-and-true 12-bar-blues form like a couple of Diamondbacks fighting over a fresh kill. The listener is left in a state of total confusion by the song’s end with insatiable pangs to hear more.
“Spann’s Blues” (1963)
Hear Spann at his most masterful: deeply rooted, totally in his element, and with a deft command of his band and the audience. One can’t help but feel that “Spann’s Blues” is just as much his as it is his forebears. From quoting Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” during the opening bars to the piano stylings of stride progenitors James P. Johnson and Fats Waller throughout, we get a sense of the 78 rpm lacquer discs and smoky parlors made an immeasurably deep impression on a young Otis Spann, who, in turn, leaves the same mark on us as listeners. Watch how he snaps his fingers in a quick call and response with the drummer, who responds with brushes on his snare.
+ Learn more on Soundfly: Brush up on your piano playing if it’s been a while, or even if you’ve never tried, with our free course, The Building Blocks of Piano.
“Bye Bye Blues” (1963)
Taken from the same 1963 concert tour as “Spann’s Blues” (and performed to predominately white audiences in Europe), this rendition of “Bye Bye Blues” features an all-star revue cast of blues music’s finest — Willie Dixon, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters, Lonnie Johnson, Victoria Spivey, and Sonny Boy Williamson. And they treat us to eight minutes of pure blues bliss.
Spann’s lines tumble and wind around the band like a crossfire hurricane, syncopated and swung. He finds a delicate balance between flash and foundation, providing the rest of the band with valuable information to fuel their improvisations.
It’s a quirky performance, orchestrated like a down-home blues jam. But can we just take a moment to enjoy this performance without being clinical? I’m honestly surprised the stage didn’t collapse under the weight of their collective legend.
“T’Aint Nobody’s Business if I Do” (1966)
Spann opens “T’Aint Nobody’s Business if I Do” with a wail that’s indiscernible from a cry. (One could argue that singing the blues and crying are one in the same.) He puts his hand on his face to further the performance. Here, Spann reaches into the absolute depths to deliver a rumbling performance that shakes until the last breath.
“Buy me a shotgun, and I’ll kill my baby,” he says. Spann has a total disregard for being “correct” on this cut, temporarily falling into cacophony with his stabbing double stops as he solos. His talent for taking the listener into a song is touched by an angel… Or perhaps, the devil.
One imagines a musician like Spann doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone and would never let something as silly as technique get in the way of a good performance. He provides a great lesson, one that’s impossible to teach, to many musicians. This comes from the heart. It’s elusive, which is why we keep listening.
The chance of a complete loss of control is what is most engaging. Whether it’s in literature, music, or theater, the risk generates the reward as we shift uncomfortably in our seats, waiting to see whether or not the artist makes it to the next beat.
“Nobody Knows My Trouble” (1968)
Anyone who can get on a stage with Muddy Waters and take the lead vocal role away from him is absolutely nobody you want to mess around with. On this track, Spann dazzles us with his powerful voice and command of the piano as he and Waters roll and tumble through a mid-tempo 12-bar number. They never quite play over each other, but certainly surrender to a monstrous push and pull, indicative of their musical caliber and mutual respect for one another.
The ability to play independent, yet symbiotic, ideas straight from the gut is the mark of a tightly keyed-in band or rhythm section. For a master class on this subject, just listen to the in-studio open-blues jam called Super Black Blues, featuring Spann playing alongside T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner, and others, looping around each other like a carousel for over 13 minutes.
And here’s a little something extra…
Muddy Waters – “Got My Mojo Workin'” (1966)
While this 1966 televised recording of “Mojo Workin'” doesn’t feature Spann’s soloing, I had to include it here as it’s my absolute favorite electric blues recording ever! This is a classic song, already performed hundreds of times by Waters at this point, done like it was the song’s debut.
That moment when James Cotton (who only recently passed away) jumps up off his stool as he wails on his trusty, guitar-amplified “harp” is transcendent. (Yup, that’s right. In the south, the harmonica is frequently referred to as a “harp,” derived originally from “mouth harp.”) Spann’s rhythmic pounding in the background helps the rhythm section create the foundation Cotton and Waters need to soar high above.
For a little bit more transcendence, be sure to check out the band’s performance of this song six years earlier at Newport Jazz Festival, in which Waters grabs Cotton while he’s taking a solo and starts dancing with him!
+ Learn more on Soundfly: Discover the history, legacy, and musical forms of the blues in our free course, A Conversation with the Blues.
Did we miss your favorite Otis Spann moment? Share yours in the comments below!