April 24, 1970 – Otis Spann was born on March 21st 1930 in Jackson, Mississippi. Spann’s father was reportedly 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 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 Waters until 1968 before leaving to form his own band. In that period he also did session work with other Chess artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley..
Spann’s work for Chess Records includes the 1954 single “It Must Have Been the Devil” / “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.
The 60s also so him touring and recording in Europe and in the UK appearing on records with the likes of Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Big Mama Thornton, Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac and others. 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 Otis Spann Is the Blues and Walking the Blues. A 1963 effort with Storyville Records was recorded in Copenhagen. He worked with Waters and Eric Clapton on recordings for Decca and with James Cotton for Prestige in 1964.
The Blues Is Where It’s At, Spann’s 1966 album for ABC-Bluesway, includes contributions from George “Harmonica” Smith, 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.
Spann died of liver cancer in Chicago on April 24, 1970 at age 40. He was buried in the 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 reads, “Otis played the deepest blues we ever heard – He’ll play forever in our hearts“.
He was posthumously elected to the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980.