Otis Spann

March 21, 1930 – April 24, 1970

Recording history: 1954 on Chess, 1960 for Candid, 1960’s for Storyville/ Prestige/ ABC-Bluesway/ Vanguard/ Flying Dutchman/ Spivey and others

Also recorded with: Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Rogers, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson #2, Junior Wells, and more…

Important/historic recordings: “Must Have Been the Devil”, “The Blues Never Die”, “Get Your Hands Out Of My Pocket”, “I’m Leaving You”

Random fact: An important figure in the post-war Chicago blues era, particularly as a member of the Muddy Waters Band, but also as a sideman with many other Chess blues recording acts. Ironically, he only released one single under his own name on the Chess label (in 1954) which also happened to feature B.B. King on guitar, and was the first recording session for George “Harmonica” Smith.

About: Born in Jackson, MS. By his teen years was playing in juke joints & clubs in Jackson and the surrounding area. By around 1947 (when his mother died) the young piano player moved to Chicago to stay with relatives, and perhaps seek more musical opportunities. By then the young Spann was already inspired very much by Chicago blues pianist Big Maceo Merriweather, and Spann had eventually taken over the piano seat with Muddy Waters in the early 1950’s…a seat which he held through the late 1960’s.

Through his all-too-short career (living only to be 40 years old), Spann didn’t record much as a leader until the early-mid 1960’s. A few recordings were made with Chess (with George “Harmonica” Smith and with Big Walter Horton), and only one single was released. Some fine recordings were made in the 1960’s for the Prestige (featuring James Cotton on harmonica and vocals), Testament (also some with James Cotton), ABC-Bluesway (also with George “Harmonica” Smith), Vanguard, and Candid.

Probably best remembered for being Muddy Waters’ piano man during Muddy’s most popular recording era (early 1950’s though the 1960’s on Chess), Otis Spann was also an extremely gifted blues singer and boogie piano player. Stylistically, he also carried on the deep blues piano tradition laid down by the aforementioned earlier Chicago blues piano great – Big Maceo. Two years after his death (in 1972), he was recognized by the Ann Arbor Jazz & Blues Festival and the festival was dedicated in his memory. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980.

Recommended Recordings in-print (with harmonica):

  • “The Blues Never Die!”- Prestige/OBC - great session sharing leader duties with James Cotton
  • “Chicago Blues” – Testament - more classic Chicago blues some with w/James Cotton
  • “The Blues Is Where It’s At” – BGO – classic recording with some harp by George Smith
  • “Chess Blues Piano Greats” - MCA/Chess - 2CD Chess compilation including four Spann tracks w/George Smith & Big Walter

I’ve found the best selection of blues harmonica CDs to be available at:

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