Songwriter and producer Clyde Otis is a cornerstone of the music industry as we know it today, not just in his songs, but also as an inspiration in the history and politics of music in this country. He was one of the first African Americans to recognize the long-term potential of publishing.
Born in 1925, Otis grew up during the Depression in an impoverished home in rural Mississippi. He dropped out of school, after the 6th grade to support his family, and eventually enrolled in the Marines during World War II. In the service he met and was inspired by Bobby Troup, songwriter of the famous song Route 66. After being discharged, he moved to New York City to pursue his dreams.
He worked as a taxi driver to support himself, writing songs and recording demos at night, after his shift was finished. On one fortuitous night in 1955, as he drove two women in the music biz to a party, his entire life changed. He convinced them to take his demo of “That’s All There is to That”, and his music got into the hands of Jack Hooke. From there it continued further up the chain to Herman Lubinsky, which led to Otis’s demo being recorded by Nat “King” Cole and the “Four Buddies on Savoy”. Soon after, he came out with other famous tracks, such as “Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind” and “Doncha’ Think it’s Time” by Elvis Presley.
His next hit, the dance track, “The Stroll,” for The Diamonds, skyrocketed to #4 on the charts and marked the beginning of his relationship with Mercury Records. The dance that carried it’s name became a Dick Clark Show staple. In 1959, he was appointed an executive after accepting the groundbreaking position as their official East Coast A&R man. He was the first black man to ever hold that posi-tion, preceding Quincy Jones.
Otis really came into his sound as he started working with big artists such as Brook Benton ( (“It’s Just a Matter of Time,” “Kiddio”) with whom he made 17 consecutive hits, and Dinah Washington (“What a Difference a Day Makes” and “This Bitter Earth”). Collaborating with arranger Belford Hendricks, Otis created robustly orchestrated pop tracks paired with memorable, catchy vocals. His signature sound is timeless and soulful, and laid the groundwork for Motown and others. Clyde’s songs have proven to be timeless, and hence have been used constantly in movies and commercials.
Italian Soul singer Timi Yuro reflected on his collaboration with Otis for their smash “Hurt,” say-ing, “Nat ‘King’ Cole adored him; Dinah adored him. He made Brook Benton. Clyde Otis was there for all of them singers and we adored him, because he had a soul that was unbelievable.”
After producing and writing 33 chart-toppers for Mercury, Otis left the label in 1961. Soon after, he launched his independent production company, Argon Productions, which led him to work with major stars such as Aretha Franklin. Although his productions were rooted in pop and R&B, he expanded his catalogue to country music, opening offices in Nashville and “It’s Just A Matter Of Time,” which became a #1 country song by Randy Travis in 1989.
Clyde towered over many at 6’4, but his raw talent and integrity stood even taller. While many black writers and producers got taken advantage of in the music industry, Otis remained deter-mined with a truly entrepreneurial spirit. His son Isidro reflected, “Dad’s working style in the stu-dio was very laid back, because he already knew exactly what he wanted.” Although that energy might have been relaxed, his work ethic was steadfast and stoic, clearly focused on self-preservation. Whereas other songwriters of the time were required to share a percentage of their rights, Otis maintained full publishing rights of his songs, and that decision made him one of the first African-Americans to ever do so.
On a larger scale, this refusal to sacrifice his rights and autonomy turned him into a hero and role model for other African-American artists as he established himself as one of the first major black record executives. Many black artists were limited to performing and recording due to prejudices in the industry, but Otis’s angle wasn’t performance. As his presence in the music industry grew, he self-educated on publishing, but even beforehand had a keen understanding of its value at a time when no one else was making independent moves. While many artists only dreamed of the spotlight, Otis was putting into place a bigger plan for the future: to build an empire.
In his personal life, Otis was wed to former actress and model Lourdes Guerrero and was a de-voted and present father to three children: Clyde III, AnaIza and Isidro. He built their family home in 1964, and the musical demographics of the neighborhood included the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, George Benson, Tony Bennet and Wilson Pickett.
Isidro would often come to the studio and the office, sharing the same fiery ambition that burned in his father. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in business man-agement, Isidro came into the business. He opened a new chapter for the Clyde Otis Music Group, signing new artists with a focus on contemporary rap and R&B writers and producers, including Nice and Smooth, and Awesome Two. Today, Isidro honors his father’s legacy and maintains his own footprint, handling his father’s vast catalogue of songs, licensing them for film and television, and maintaining his own client base.
On January 8, 2008 Clyde Otis passed away at 83 years old in his home in Englewood, New Jersey. He received many awards for his work, including the Pioneer Award from The Rhythm and Blues Foundation. From a taxi driver to talented artist across multiple genres to business mogul, Otis has been a master of the unexpected in more ways than one, making history and spreading joy to music lovers all over the globe. Clyde’s spirit infuses jazz today, and, his family is honored to preserve and continue his legacy.