The lost tapes found! Spann’s Last Call, is, well, Spann’s last call, the sign from the bar telling you 15 minutes to go. Last Call presents Spann’s last concert, recorded but three weeks before liver cancer took him away. On April 2, 1970, Spann, his wife Lucille, guitarists Luther “Snake” Johnson and Peter Malick, along with Ted Parkins and Richard Ponte gave a slim Boston crowd an astounding blues show, leaving one wondering in hindsight if Spann knew this one might be his last.
Best known for his tinkling with the Muddy Waters Band, Spann broke off on his own in the 1960s with the album Otis Spann is the Blues (1960). As a regular house pianist for Chess, Spann cut discs with Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley, and Jimmy Rodgers. He continued to tour and record in the sixties, even hooking up briefly with Fleetwood Mac. By the end of the sixties, he had become much more than a sideman or a house pianist. He cut his own swath now. But by the end of the sixties, Spann’s health began to fail, sadly, at the height of his career.
In the photos in the liner notes, Spann’s coat hangs on him like a sack; he is almost unrecognizable with his girth melted away and his legs like toothpicks. He can barely speak and he does no vocal work on Last Call (at one point Lucille tells the audience that Spann has laryngitis). But his chops remain as strong and innovative as ever. His voice and body are gone, but his articulation from the ivories makes up for the terrifying vision of a man dying on stage.
Last Call is strong all around. Lucille Spann takes center stage with her deep velvet voice. She takes his absent voice and makes it her own, expanding Spann on stage, speaking for him. Johnson and Malick smoke through all the tracks, laying riffs on top of each other, vying for attention and voice. Parkins and Ponte, of course, lay down the solid backbone from which all these blues spring. Behind, in front, and right down in-between all this mess sits Otis Spann, melodically center stage, harmonically underneath, all the while taking his blues chops far beyond any place of fear that cancer might breed.
The sound quality of Last Call is excellent, considering these tapes lay in cans somewhere in the San Fernando valley for the last 25 to 30 years. Ironically, Spann’s last show drew but a tiny crowd in Boston. In the back, you can hear the reverberations of an enthusiastic crowd in an empty hall, seemingly unaware of their own echo. But now, 30 years later, you can listen and understand how that empty space melted away as Spann and his band filled the space with sounds soon to be gone forever. Last Call is not only an album of tremendous passion, but an important historical document as well. Spann plays here as if his life depended on it.
// Notes from the Road
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