Clyde Otis: Hit songwriter and producer

Tuesday 19 February 2008 01:00

The songwriter and record producer Clyde Otis was noted for his long association with Brook Benton. He wrote both ballads and beat songs, but was at his best in reflective work which drew on his own life, such as "Looking Back" (for Nat "King" Cole), "It's Just a Matter of Time" (Brook Benton) and "This Bitter Earth" (Dinah Washington).

Otis was born into a poor family in Prentice, Mississippi in 1925. The family did not possess a radio, so he had little opportunity to hear the hits of the day. In his teens, he started playing drums and, unusually for a songwriter, never moved to the piano, preferring to construct melodies in his head and then sing them to the arranger.

Whilst in the Marines, Otis met the songwriter Bobby Troup, who suggested that he move to New York if he wanted to sell his songs. Otis became a cab driver in New York and, in 1955, persuaded a passenger to pass his song "That's All There is to That" to a music publisher, Sidney Kornhauser. Nat "King" Cole with the Four Knights recorded the song and Otis joined the songwriters' organisation BMI. He wrote further songs for Cole including, in 1958, the standard "Looking Back". "Take a Look" was successful for both Cole and later for his daughter, Natalie.

Another music publisher, Aaron Schroeder, persuaded Otis to write songs for a rival organisation, Ascap. Otis chose the pseudonym Cliff Owens and with Schroeder wrote "Any Way You Want Me", a B-side for Elvis Presley in 1956, and "Doncha Think It's Time" in 1958. One day, while out hunting with the blues singer Ivory Joe Hunter, Otis received a message that further material for Presley was wanted, and together they came up with "Ain't that Lovin' You Baby" within two hours.

After writing "The Wall", a nondescript hit for Patti Page in 1957, Otis joined Mercury Records in Chicago as an A&R manager, the first Afro-American to hold such a position within a major label. He began a long partnership with Brook Benton and among the hits he wrote, often with Benton and Belford Hendricks, are "It's Just a Matter of Time", "Kiddio", "Endlessly" and "Think Twice". With Dinah Washington he wrote a philosophical ballad "This Bitter Earth" and produced the classic recordings "What a Diff'rence a Day Made" (1958) and "September in the Rain" (1961).

Although Washington was a prima donna, and Benton was reluctant, Otis could see the potential of teaming the two Mercury artists. They only recorded four songs together, but these included two million-sellers, "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)" and "A Rockin' Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall in Love)", both in 1960.

Otis's other songs include "A Lover's Question" for Clyde McPhatter (1958), "Call Me" for Johnny Mathis (1958), "I'll Take Care of You" for Bobby Bland (1960) and "What's a Matter Baby" for Timi Yuro (1962). He produced many of Aretha Franklin's early records for Columbia, but he admitted, "No one really knew what to do with her."

During the 1960s, Otis established his own company, the Clyde Otis Music Group and produced country singers in Nashville including Charlie Rich and Sonny James.

Spencer Leigh

Clyde Lovern Otis, songwriter and record producer: born Prentice, Mississippi 1925; married (two sons, one daughter); died Englewood, New Jersey 8 January 2008.

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