Saturday, October 22, 2016


Memphis musician Clay Hardee has died. Known for recent string of albums released under his stage name Clay Otis, the 35-year-old had been staying with friends in Atlanta when he was found unresponsive early Thursday morning. The cause of death is unknown.

News about Hardee – an ebullient and much-loved figure about town – sent a shock through Memphis' music community, particularly among the core of players and producers from Crosstown’s High/Low studio, where he worked regularly.

“Clay lived life to the fullest. That’s how he approached it,” said High/Low owner and longtime Hardee collaborator Toby Vest. “He was a true Memphis original and a true believer in the mystical power of this city to transform people. He was a force of nature who pushed everyone around him to be a better person even when he was struggling with his own demons.”

Hardee grew up in Panama City Beach, Florida, "where it's spring break forever," he recalled in a 2014 interview with The Commercial Appeal (his stage moniker was not a reference to former Hi Records soul singer Otis Clay, but rather a childhood nickname). He attended film school at the University of Central Florida before getting kicked out. Hardee came to Memphis in 2007, originally to make a documentary on local indie-rock band Snowglobe. That project fell apart, but he began writing a script and sourcing money for another film. In the process, he soon fell in with brothers Toby and Jake Vest, the musical siblings behind bands such as Augustine, Bulletproof Vests and Tiger High and local recording studio High/Low.

“He would hang out at the studio and watch us do our thing,” recalled Toby Vest. “He came in one night and was like, ‘I got this song, I wrote this song.’ And so Jake said, ‘Let’s record it.’ That was in 2010 — and that pretty much started it. It definitely became an instant passion for him. He wasn’t the most naturally musical person, but he knew how to put people in place to make the things he wanted to make — it’s an impressive skill.”

Over the next several years, Hardee would release a succession of solo records and band projects ranging from party-pop to cutting rock: “Clay Otis and the Showbiz Lights”; “The Overachiever”; “Citizen Clay”; and “Clay Otis and Shadow Brother.”

“He basically made five records in five and a half years,” noted Vest. “A guy with no ambition to do this six years ago was making records with serious musicians, and nobody took him any less seriously. That was how strong his vision and passion were.”

Otis' songs were often ruminations on love and death delivered in a darkly comic manner. "As a songwriter, I'm blunt and direct. I like to think I'm like a Chuck D for white people," Hardee noted, citing the stentorian frontman for rap group Public Enemy. "There are these things going on in the world that are discussed in the news, but only in an abstract way. We don't get any sincere stories about that stuff.”

Just a week ago, Hardee had celebrated the release of his latest album, “ADDults,” with a show at Bar DKDC in Cooper-Young. Addiction was another frequent topic for Hardee, particularly the epidemic of prescription drug abuse rampant in his native Florida.

“A lot of the stuff he talked about was based on his own experiences, but also came from watching people he grew with up fall into that Panama City party lifestyle and fall apart,” said Vest. “That really informed a lot of his writing. His sensitivity towards other humans is what’s really reflected in his music and his lyrics — and how deeply he felt those things.”

For a couple years, Hardee had been splitting time between Memphis and Northern California, where he’d gotten a job working for a wine brokerage in Napa. More recently, he returned full time to the Bluff City, where he continued to write film scripts and songs.

Funeral services for Hardee — which are expected to place in Florida — are pending. Vest says he will try to organize a Memphis remembrance of some kind in the next week.

“He really knew how to prop up his friends and encourage them, and encourage them to be their best," Vest said. "That was something that really came through in the way he worked with people in the studio and on stage. I’m just glad to have known him and glad to have made those records with him. Because they’re gonna be here for years, even though he’s gone.”

I met Clay in a Gulf Coast Community College (as it was called back then) screenwriting class in Panama City, Florida.

Our spirit guide, Lynn Wallace, had a hell of a lot of madness with us on his hands during that course—this was the classroom that brought my orbit in phase with Clay and Aaron Bearden.  Our projects were a bizarre amalgamation of the sum of his students:

I was penning the first draft of what would become CONVERSION PARTY, a screenplay where a club kid is deliberately attempting to contract and spread HIV in the party scene.

Aaron's script followed a musician who falls in love and runs away with a woman in a successful chick rock trio outfit.

One student (whose name escapes me, sorry) wrote about a paraplegic using their disability to hustle people.

Clay was writing a modern blacksploitation flick, unapologetic for the language or the subject matter.
Brother Lynn must have thought us all crazy.

Clay, Aaron, and I started the movie nights at my apartment.  Later dubbed ENDLESS FALL, we'd meet once a week, spin flicks and talk about what made them work or not.  Ripping apart the acting, shot compositions, costumes, and dialog, we planned on making our own films.

None of us have.

A few years later, I was struggling with terrible depression and drinking my way through guitar licks, pages of fiction, and deep house mixes on the turntables.  My phone rang one fall afternoon as I'm pouring a cognac for a Kurosawa flick.

It's Clay.

He called me the "man with a writing plan and a bottle in his hand"—slick wordplay from a great writer, poetry spoken into the lines.  We talked about addiction, music, film.  He told me he has one of my poems pinned on his wall.

This one:

Epicurean feast;
Red wine waterfalls
Chase rum cakes and ham
flickering candles
light large, round tables
mood swings as we reminisce faded times
accordion player invokes old Italian melodies
hot suites inside
a foot of snow outside
cousins I don't know crying
nibbling carrot sticks and cookies
doily's freckled with crumbs
Grandma's not eating much today
Uncles having cigarettes

Dining at the funeral party

The conversation picks me up.  A little light during a dark age.  Although we made plans to watch a film together, it never happened.

I lose touch with the man, catching whispers of his movements through friends.

Aaron and Clay see Cory Branan in Tallahassee.

Clay is in Memphis, making music under the moniker Clay Otis.

Aaron runs into him and gets a few CDs. Aaron says, "One is so damned good that I damn near wore it out."

And then this morning, the news that he is dead has crept into my facebook feed like the chilly air that's come from the north and swallowed New Orleans.  The first cold front of this upcoming winter couldn't come at a more fitting time, don't ya think?

RIP, my friend.  Sorry we never caught that movie.

Photo by Josh Breeden

No comments:

Post a Comment