The first thing people usually say when they recognize a phenomenon exclusive to a specific place is “There must have been something in the water,” but Hi Records in Memphis transcends that.
It’s more like a portal that opened to let us observe an unknown corner of the universe. It revealed incredible secrets and offered the promise of a brighter future, but then the portal closed, leaving us to wonder how to live with only the memory of its existence. Al Green, O.V. Wright, Otis Clay and Ann Peebles, among many others, all did their best work under the tutelage of producer Willie Mitchell. The level of consistency in the recordings that emanated from this modest record label between 1972 and 1974 is nothing short of amazing, but the magical portal worked other miracles as well.
For that short period of time, it really did seem as though there could once again be harmony in the world. It suggested a bridge across the vast chasm between Black and White by portraying our similarities instead of our differences. Other than their outsized talent, the singers seemed down to earth and relatable, singing about topics that any warm-blooded human being could relate to. I was just a kid when these records came out, but they moved me even then, and they gave me hope for the future. Why did that portal need to close?
Otis Clay was not the biggest star for Hi Records, but I felt that he might have had the biggest heart. One often unspoken fact concerning the output of soul music from Hi is the (apparently) deep honesty and downright decency of the song lyrics. Virtually every record seemed to be a struggle with the truth, and that truth often revolved around the difficulties of maintaining a relationship. On “Trying to Live My Life Without You,” Otis Clay sings about lost love on every single track, and although the beautiful music can be uplifting and inspirational, the lyrics are often devastating. If you are suffering from a broken heart, or perhaps going through a separation, I strongly advise you to take caution when listening to this record. I’ve lived through my share of difficult breakups, and I can recall a time when this record actually caused me physical pain. It was so easy to relate to Clay’s pure expression that I felt as though he became a voice for what I felt in my own heart, and it hurt so much that I thought it would kill me, and yet I kept going back because it hurt so good. He made me feel the love that circumstances demanded that I repress, and so I felt a bond with Otis Clay that was beyond reason, because I never met the man and knew virtually nothing about him other than what I derived from the lyrics that he sang.
Over time, and against all expectations, my heart healed and I actually did find genuine happiness in my life, but I never forgot that Otis Clay was there to stand by me when I was down. Unfortunately, the world did not stay on the course that I wished for. Times changed, music grew harder, edgier and more caustic, and my dream of compassion between the races dwindled before my eyes, making me feel helpless and frustrated as I grew older. The portal had closed, but I still remember a time when my heart felt full of love, even as my guts churned in pain. Otis Clay seemed to understand, and the existence of this album still provides a consistent reminder of love’s power and the ability to heal.
June 1972 – Billboard Did Not Chart