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May 2001

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Otis Spann
Walkin' The Blues

Otis Spann - Walkin' The BluesOtis Spann's name is well known to any blues fan. He's remembered today as perhaps the finest blues piano player of the '50s and '60s. And of course, much of his reputation derives from his long tenure (from 1952 to 1969) in the most formidable blues aggregation of all time, Muddy Waters' band. Spann played on many classic Muddy cuts from 1953 onwards, and as a member of the Chess family, on numerous tracks from other Chess recording artists like Chuck Berry, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf, etc. Stangely enough, and unlike other Muddy alumni like Little Walter and Jimmy Rogers, he was never really offered the chance the record as a leader by the Chess brothers. He released one single in 1954 ("It Must Have Been the Devil," with B.B. King on guitar), cut a few tracks that were shelved until the 90s, and remained a Chess sideman. His big break came after the Muddy Waters' Live at Newport LP from 1960, where his stunning boogies and one lead vocal track by him showed his potential as a recording artist. 

It was also in 1960 that he recorded his first full-length LP, the extraordinary Otis Spann is the Blues, with Robert Jr. Lockwood on guitar, for a brand new company, Candid Records. How he came to record there is something of a mystery. Candid was strictly a jazz label, owned and run by famous jazz critic Nat Hentoff. Spann's LP was the sole blues record released by the company, except for a Lightnin' Hopkins LP (but that doesn't count, because Lightnin' recorded for absolutely everybody!). Not only that, but Spann's album was the first ever release on Candid! Within two years, the label folded, and the LP became a collector's item.

Before he died in 1970, Otis Spann had time to record other fine records for Storyville, Decca, Prestige (The Blues Never Die!, where he shares lead vocals with James Cotton), Testament, Vanguard and other labels, including one with members of Fleetwood Mac that produced his only (posthumous) hit, "Hungry Country Girl." 

Upon his death, Spann's breakthrough album was still impossible to find. But that changed quickly, as the Candid recordings were re-released by CBS. That's when Walkin' The Blues appeared. Taped at the same sessions when Otis Spann is the Blues was recorded, it had been planned as a second Spann LP, but the rapid demise of Candid had put a hold on this. And what a formidable find this proved. While Otis Spann is the Blues had proved to be a stunning debut LP, Walkin' The Blues was quickly considered to be a masterpiece … and both LP's just as quickly went out of print.

Flash forward to the end of the 80s. The Candid name is revived, its catalogue comes back in print (including both Spann albums, for the first time on CD), and new (jazz) sessions are held. (To this day, Candid continues to put out good jazz records, but no more blues). And now, in 2001, it is Candid's 40th anniversary, and most of the back catalog has been re-released again, including the subject of this month's Flashback, Walkin' The Blues! In the span (no pun intended) of the 11 tracks included here, you will experience the full spectrum of Otis Spann's genius. 

The opening track, "It Must Have Been the Devil," with only Lockwood's guitar helping out, is a re-working of Spann's sole Chess single from the '50s. When you compare it to the full band original, you can't help but find it so much more majestic and meaningful. The second cut is an instrumental solo piano piece, "Otis' Blues," which will convince you that this man "had two hands," as Muddy Waters once said about him. "Goin' Down Slow" then proceeds to show Spann's immense talent as an accompanist, as guest St. Louis Jimmy Oden does his umpteenth version of this, his signature tune. He quite possibly never found such a sympathetic and talented backup duo as Spann and Lockwood. Spann then proceeds to sing the ultra sad and slow "Half Ain't Been Told," accompanied only by his own piano. 

The rest of the record uses the same ingredients --- a couple more instrumental solo pieces, a couple more Spann-sung blues with Lockwood's admirable guitar support, a couple more Oden-sung classics with Spann and Lockwood playing with class and feeling. 

Every cut on this album is just perfect. The sound quality on this reissue is as good as you could want. It was and still is a classic. What more could you want? Go and buy it, before it again becomes impossible to find. And listen, and listen again.

--- Benoît Brière

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