History Sings On: The Life and Legacy of American Songwriter and Producer Clyde Otis

BY CAROLYN JOHNSON

As son of the late American songwriter and producer, Clyde Otis, Isidro Otis spent a lot of time in his youth with artists who made music history. These were his father’s peers, his elders. This unique experience seems to have cultivated in Isidro not only a deep appreciation for music, but also a work ethic, value system and wisdom far beyond his years.

Otis recalls, “My father was an innovator, a trailblazer, … he was very creative.” As an A&R (Artists and Repertoire) record label executive, Otis signed artists, recorded material, and got records out. Otis’ extensive catalog includes artists like Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King, and Brook Benton. Clyde produced and co-wrote 33 out of 51 charted hits while at Mercury records, like, Dinah Washington’s “What a difference a day makes,” Aretha Franklin’s “Take a look,” Bobby Blue Brand’s classic “I’ll take care of you” and Nat “King” Cole’s “Looking Back.” In the 1990s, Natalie Cole sang Otis’ song, “Take a look” on the album “Unforgettable,” interspersing her late father’s voice, earning the “Best Jazz Vocal Performance” Grammy for her version of the classic song.

“This work was phenomenal in many ways,” says Isidro. Clyde Otis paved the way for so many musical artists. An old jazz musician, Milt Jackson, tells Isidro, “If it wasn’t for your father, I would not have had work. I’d call him when I couldn’t make my mortgage, and he’d find me work.” Isidro’s heard many stories like that, and often finds he follows the same practice.

Isidro grew up in the same neighborhood in Englewood, New Jersey with a community of music legends he called “uncles.” Dizzy Gillespie lived across the street, while Wilson Pickett and George Benson were nearby. Willie Nelson once flew his private jet above their home, and “dipped his wing” which is a way of saying ‘hello” to his friends on the block.

Isidro’s family vacationed with people like The Isley Brothers (Rudolph and O’Kelly), and Lee Arnold. The men played poker and hunted deer together in the Catskills, and saw great performers like Sammy Davis in Atlantic City. Uncle Dizzy used to bring fireworks from out of state to the annual Fourth of July parties. Gillespie taught Isidro how to dive in his outdoor pool. “Those guys were so talented and they all knew each other well,” Otis recalls fondly. His family still spends time with some of those friends, who share a similar respect for the past, their history.

Isidro Otis’ tenure as president of The Clyde Otis Music Group started in 1986, following his graduation from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in business management. Isidro worked alongside his father for several years. When his father suffered from a prolonged illness, Isidro became the acting president of the company. “His brother, Clyde Otis III, an attorney, and sister Ana, a talented artist, have also played roles in the company over the years, making their mother Lourdes proud.” As President of The Clyde Otis Music Group (TCOMG), Isidro Otis exhibits a level of integrity that is rare these days. Perhaps his unique upbringing has something to do with this.

Isidro has been able to increase the business revenue by more than one thousand percent since he was made the president of the company, securing administration deals with songwriters and producers, negotiating licensing agreements in new technology. He has successfully secured and administered more than six thousand copyrights to-date. He currently oversees songs in the TCOMG catalog, which have generated over a million performances on radio. Isidro has effectively placed agreements for copyrights in over twelve foreign territories. He manages song placements in radio, film, television and commercials. Yet he’s content not being in the spotlight.

Isidro’s father, Clyde Otis, helped to create many legends and legendary music, though his work and life are sung far less loudly than the celebrities he helped create. Clyde Otis is in many ways an under-sung hero, pun intended. Mike Boone presents the life of Clyde Otis on his “Soul Facts Show,” which can be viewed on YouTube. After watching Otis’ biography, one viewer said, “I’ve seen Mr. Otis’ name on records all my life, I know many of his songs but knew nothing about him until now.”

After serving in the Marines during World War II, Clyde Otis moved to New York and inspired by fellow-Marine Bobby Troupe, best known for “Route 66,” began writing songs. Otis got his big break as a songwriter while driving a taxicab. One night, a passenger told him he was going to a party with big time record producers. Clyde convinced the rider to give one of his songs to a producer at the party, which landed him his first hit, Nat King Cole’s recording of his song “That’s All There Is to That,” which reached Billboard Top 20 in 1956. After joining Mercury records, he collaborated with Brook Benton on hits such as “Endlessly,” “What a Difference a Day Makes” and so many more including classic rock ‘n’ roll songs. Elvis recorded such hits as “Ain’t That Loving You Baby” and “Doncha Think Its Time.” According to Broadcast Music Inc., Otis is credited as the writer or co-writer of almost 800 songs. Clyde Otis died at age 83 in 2008.

Clyde Otis was the first African American to maintain a high profile position as an executive at a major record production company, establishing an important foundation for other African Americans. He greatly influenced the course of music history. Like his father, Isidro is humble about this, saying, “If other people didn’t tell me this, I’d never know it.”

After rising to great success at two record companies, Clyde started his own independent production company in 1962, since he had relationships with so many artists. In the 1960s, each song was recorded live, with the whole band playing on stage in sync with the singers. Clyde coordinated all details of such a production, sometimes dealing with artists who didn’t show up, or needed to be coaxed from hotel rooms. Isidro enjoys listening to a song that reveals how different music production used to be. In one song, a duet, a male singer accidentally sang one of the female’s lines, but the two just kept singing with joy and laughter, and most people don’t notice. Today, the different pieces often come together in the editing room, with the artists and musicians recorded in different places.

While technology affords today’s music producers many conveniences, Isidro “goes with the flow” and enjoys the flexibility the changes afford him, but senses that maybe we’ve lost something in the modernization of music production. People don’t often meet and develop relationships and supportive communities of artists like the ones with whom he grew up. There seemed to be more comradery in the industry, and both Clyde and Isidro always met with people in person and contracts were signed in ink. Today, signatures are typically electronic, and personal contact is less the norm.

When Isidro was a young adult, he spent a lot of time in nightclubs and studios until 3 or 4 a.m. He was always trying to sign writers and place their demos with recording artists. One can easily burn out in the music industry, as we have seen many talented people do. Isidro’s health suffered, and he decided he didn’t want to miss so much of family life, as his two young daughters were quickly growing. He cut back on travel as business changed drastically. Otis is no longer so concerned with keeping his music at the top of the charts, and this has spared him many headaches.

Part of Isidro’s role is that he calculates and distributes royalties for writers signed to his roster, and keeps careful watch over their estates as well. Recently, he heard that the daughter of a legendary singer was having financial difficulty. Isidro was surprised, knowing what he does about the royalties. He had companies audited and found that they hadn’t been paying appropriate royalties, much to the ignorance of the heirs. He arranged for proper amends to be made, and called this particular woman to alert her that there would be a little more in her regular royalty check that month, $25,000 in retroactive pay. Isidro could have hidden some of this, but he makes sure that the appropriate people are paid their due. His reputation for honesty has generated much unsolicited business for him.

While on the board of governors at The Friar’s Club in New York City, where he is currently the club’s ‘Nine-Ball Champion,’ Isidro was instrumental when a well-respected television personality wasn’t being treated properly in a particular situation. Again, he helped the differing individuals make amends in a situation where someone was wronged. He seems to perform such courageous acts with tremendous dignity.

If Otis hadn’t grown up in this business, he suspects he’d be a professional billiard player. Isidro lives in Rockland County, and enjoys spending quality time with his beautiful wife, Dawn Marie Montgomery-Otis, and their two children, Lourdes “Sydney,” and Lauren.