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"The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein."

Journalist Patrick Cockburn (CO-BURN). He's been a senior Middle East Correspondent for the Financial Times and the London Independent. He's the co-author of the new book, "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein" (HarperCollins). He'll discuss the bombing campaign against Iraq, Saddam's hold on power, the royal family and more.


Other segments from the episode on February 23, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 23, 1999: Interview with Patrick Coburn; Interview with Otis Clay.


Date: FEBRUARY 23, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 022301np.217
Head: Patrick Cockburn
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Saddam Hussein is still in power in spite of the Gulf War, subsequent coup attempts, U.S. spies serving on the UN weapons inspections teams and continued allied bombings, including three raids yesterday.

Patrick and Alexander Cockburn investigate how Saddam has managed to survive in their new book, "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein." Today, "The New York Times" reports that a forthcoming book by a former U.N. weapons inspector claims that the CIA had spies working on U.N. weapons inspection teams earlier than had previously been reported.

And those agents may have been connected to a failed coup attempt in 1996. The Cockburn's say that their understanding is that the involvement of these agents in the planning of the coup, if any, was minimal. My guest Patrick Cockburn is senior Middle East correspondent for the "London Independent," a position he formerly held at the "Financial Times."

He remained in Baghdad during the Gulf War and was last there during the December allied bombings. I spoke with him Thursday, shortly before he returned to his base in Jerusalem. He told me that he's pessimistic that bombing Iraq will end Saddam Hussein's regime.

PATRICK COCKBURN, JOURNALIST, "LONDON INDEPENDENT;" AUTHOR, "OUT OF THE ASHES": Well, the biggest bombing of Iraq was in 1991, and we all know that that fully failed to end the regime. The bombing we saw last December, I was in Baghdad, was much smaller on scale than we saw then. So it's very unlikely that this will end the regime.

Also, the Iraqis are quite used to being bombed. You see on television big ministerial buildings being hit, but usually they are empty. They've been evacuated. It really doesn't hit the heart of the regime. And even during '91 I was told by -- it was very heavy bombing over a long period -- I was told by the head of the Iraqi television system, who is now in exile, that they lost no officer over the rank of brigadier.

GROSS: You point out in your book that the infrastructure that supports Saddam Hussein's regime is the people not the buildings. Saddam Hussein has managed to stay hidden during all of the bombing -- last year and in previous years. How does Saddam Hussein stay hidden? What do you know about his secret whereabouts?

COCKBURN: That's a good question. During the original bombing, and I think during the last one too, one place -- a senior Iraqi officer told me -- that they weren't was inside a deep bunker. That they thought the allies -- the U.S. -- knew we're these bunkers were. What he normally does is stay very mobile.

He stays in suburban houses. He shifts his address very often. He doesn't anybody where he is. He moves around Baghdad in an old car with one bodyguard, although there are other bodyguards further out. He doesn't want to identify who or where he is by a great big convoy with lots of armed men around.

And if any other senior official wants to get in touch with him, you can't ring him up direct. You ring up his office and then you get rung back from another location, or sometimes he just turns up in person. So the number of people who know where he is in Baghdad at any one time is very limited.

GROSS: Do you think he uses disguises when he's going from one place to another?

COCKBURN: He has doubles to confuse the issue. People who look like him. People who have been trained to behave like him. But it's more -- the disguise is more the vehicles he uses, the place he stays. He doesn't alter his appearance.

And I met one Iraqi recently who was there just driving through the traffic a couple of years ago. He looked up and in the car beside him there was Saddam Hussein driving himself. That doesn't mean he's isolated. There are bodyguards there, but there aren't a bunch of people in uniform which make him -- his position identifiable.

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Patrick Cockburn, he's senior Middle East correspondent for the "London Independent." Co-author of the new book "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein."

There have been several attempts to overthrow Saddam Hussein, the CIA has been involved in a couple of them. What do you consider to be the largest most ambitious attempt that the CIA was involved with?

COCKBURN: It was in 1996. They had a very carefully organized attempt based in Jordan. They believed that they'd won over senior Iraqi officers right at the heart of Saddam's power: in his personal security, in his communications units. They were very confident.

The opposition group they were backing, the Iraq National Accord, was even giving interviews publicly saying that they were going to overthrow Saddam and do so quickly. Unfortunately, it seems that from the very beginning this operation had been penetrated by Iraqi intelligence. That the Jordanian Prime Minister of the day, who was very much opposed to the regime in Iraq, told us that he thought that the Iraqis could always see them coming.

That every move that was made by the opposition based in Jordan seemed to be known in Baghdad first. And that they knew it because they intercepted the communications between Amman and Baghdad. And finally, they struck in the middle of 1996, and they were mass arrests, mass torturing and mass executions.

There are still people being executed, if you would see the list of people who had been executed in Baghdad recently, there are still people being executed over the last few months who were involved in this attempt.

GROSS: What was the plan to overthrow Saddam?

COCKBURN: It was to make a coup from the center. It's a regime which has focused power, particularly since the Gulf War, on -- around the person of Saddam but is very dependent on the inner presidential security. The special Republican Guard units. The inner family.

They thought if they could strike right at the center then they could begin a military coup and then the whole regime would begin to disintegrate. It was very much aimed at the top of the regime. And they felt that they had got the right officers, officers in critical positions, who would support them.

Unfortunately, as I said, the Iraqi's knew this at quite an early stage and knew every move that the CIA station in Amman was making. And much to their astonishment they suddenly saw this all disintegrate and all their people arrested.

GROSS: What was the CIA's role in this coup? Was it just funding this opposition group, or was it actively helping to plan the coup? Was it leading the planning of it?

COCKBURN: Yes. This was very much a hands on operation, and was in -- were allied to other intelligence services, including the British. They had meetings with -- they were closely associated with Jordanian intelligence, with Saudi intelligence. It was trying to pool resources to identify who in the inner elite in Baghdad they might be able to suborn to get to support them.

GROSS: How do you as a journalist, without betray any sources, how do you as a journalist get information about a secret CIA coup attempt?

COCKBURN: Well, after you have a disaster like this -- first of all, there are casualties of the plot who survived. So there are people -- the Iraqi's involved in it who did manage to get out of the country who I then talked to. Who are well informed on what happened.

Secondly, there are other opposition groups who knew about it but weren't closely associated with it who have very precise information about what was going on. So it would have been much more difficult to find out details of a successful plot.

When something goes seriously wrong it's much easier to find out -- to find people who will talk. Even so, it's not that easy but we were able to find people.

GROSS: Why is it easier to find out the people behind an unsuccessful coup?

COCKBURN: Well, because people have fled into exile. There are people whose relatives have been killed. People are very angry. And people who want to blame others on -- over what happened. They have -- in some cases they think if it had been organized in a slightly different way it might have been successful.

And some people are very bitter because their relatives have been arrested, tortured savagely, sometimes executed, sometimes have just disappeared.

GROSS: My guest is Patrick Cockburn. He's the co-author of the new book "Out Of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein." Cockburn is senior Middle East correspondent for the "London Independent." Let's take a break here and then we'll talk some more about Saddam Hussein and how he's managed to stay in power for so long.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Patrick Cockburn, co-author of the new book "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein." He's senior Middle East correspondent for the "London Independent."

There was an underground opposition group called "El Nada," (ph) am I saying that right?

COCKBURN: El nada, yeah.

GROSS: In English that means "the awakening." And you write about how they tried to assassinate Saddam Hussein's oldest son Uday. They managed to shoot him eight times but he survived. Why did they choose him, Saddam's oldest son, as the target?

COCKBURN: They decided that the four most important people in the regime were Saddam's two sons Uday and Huzai (ph), and a cousin of his, Ali Hassem Al Majid (ph). They then looked at who would be the easiest to attack.

Saddam, very tough because he's always moving around; very heavy security. Huzai, the other son, keeps a low profile; the cousin also. They thought Uday, who's a playboy, flamboyant, would be the easiest to find and the easiest person to get information about. So they decided to target him.

GROSS: Well, say they had succeeded in killing him, would that have toppled the regime? What impact could that have had?

COCKBURN: It would have had an impact and it did have an impact, the fact they shot him, because despite everything that had happened the elite of the regime -- the inner core -- had gave to Iraqis a sense that they were invulnerable despite everything that had happened. Wars -- defeats in wars, conspiracies, plots. Nobody had ever got to them.

So what they wanted to do was to show that the regime was not invulnerable. And they also wanted to show that Iraqis inside the country, not a foreign directed plot, could do something against the regime. Ordinary Iraqis often have a sense of impotence -- political impotence. They feel the whole time they are the victims, but they're watching a battle which affects their lives between Saddam, the regime, and its many enemies outside the country.

They wanted to show that ordinary Iraqis could do something. And they succeeded in doing that.

GROSS: Uday, Saddam's eldest son, seems like a particularly scary figure. You describe him as a playboy who revered Western taste and culture. A few years ago he murdered one of his father's closest aides.

COCKBURN: Yes, he murdered (unintelligible), who is his father's close aide, food taster. It was over a dispute within the family. Saddam had taken a mistress. His wife, Sajida, was very angry; was close to Uday. There was a party in an island in the center of Baghdad -- Uday drinks very heavily.

The -- his mother and others were at one party, Uday decided to hold a party next door. He got very drunk and had a quarrel with Jadjio (ph), this close aide of his father, and killed him.

GROSS: Now Uday, Saddam's oldest son, also murdered two of his brothers-in-law, yes?

COCKBURN: Yes. The -- he -- when Hussein Kamal (ph), who was married to one of his sisters and his brother married to another sister, fled to Jordan -- and there's no doubt that they were frightened of Uday. They were competing with him in business. They were scared of him. This was one of the reasons that they fled to Jordan.

GROSS: I know for a while Uday was the head of Iraqi media. Does he still hold that position?

COCKBURN: He's influential, but not quite as he was before. He was very badly wounded on the bottom half of his body. He was in a car when he was shot, somebody was leaning forward and downwards pumping bullets into him at close range. So he's very badly injured.

He's not sexually impotent as a lot of Iraqis believed at the time, but...

GROSS: ...this is an issue because he was such a playboy.

COCKBURN: Yeah, I think people kind of wanted to believe it because they felt that it was a certain sort of justice in the idea of somebody who had been known for raping women should now be unable to have no sex life at all. But it's not true.

GROSS: Did you ever have to deal with him directly since he was the head of Iraqi media?

COCKBURN: We met him at one stage and had dinner with him. We should say he behaved very well. He speaks good English. And you don't meet him directly because of his control of the media. It's done through other people. He doesn't come out and make statements. You can work out what's in his mind because you know that he will have determined what appears -- and he has one paper that's called "Babo," (ph) and has television channels and other things.

He would tell the editor what to write. Occasionally he wouldn't like -- he would forget what he said to the editor and the editor would be thrown in prison or lashed. Aides to Uday used to keep tape recorders in their pockets when he gave them any order as a sort of defense, if afterwards he said why did you write this or why did you say this.

And they'd say, well, you told me to. And then he'd say, no I didn't. So they always had these tape recorders with them to playback what were their orders, you know, desperate and not always very successful attempts to avoid severe punishment.

GROSS: Is it a funny feeling to be sitting down with someone who is such a tyrant, part of a tyrannical regime and having a nice civil dinner?

COCKBURN: Oh, sure. Yes. Because with -- you don't know how these people are going to react. They're friendly at one moment, but you know their track record.

GROSS: And they know yours. I mean, I'm sure they know how you feel about their regime. They've probably read your stuff.

COCKBURN: Well, I was kind of hoping not too closely. And you don't know how much -- I mean, its peculiar being a journalist there. I mean, last year I was summoned to the Ministry of Information twice. I was a bit worried as to what they were going to complain about, but what they focus on most of all is any criticism of Saddam himself.

And I'd written a number of things which I thought they really wouldn't like at all about various plots into the executed. But in fact one of the things that irritated them was that I'd written an article comparing Saddam Hussein to Shakespeare's Richard III, who also had a very bloody career and killed his two nephews and so forth.

And they didn't like this at all. It's rather -- I mean, I thought I'm using historical parallel because of this particular king only lasted three years. Saddam's lasted 30. So -- but the objective -- sometimes it something very serious. And sometimes it's very trivial.

I also kept in mind that the last British journalist to be arrested and jailed there was hanged. So that never leaves your mind either.

GROSS: So what do you do when they criticize this piece? Are you supposed to apologize or what?

COCKBURN: No. Well, I say, well -- I said, look, this is Shakespeare it's a respectable historical parallel. That's what I wrote. And so, no, I didn't apologize. But -- and they didn't carry it forward after that.

GROSS: It has a chilling effect?

COCKBURN: Oh, yes. And you should be chilled by this. I mean, sometimes people arrive in Baghdad and they think it's not as bad as it looks. But you've always got to be -- anybody with any sense is very wary there.

GROSS: So, listen, getting back to that dinner for a second, I have to ask, who picked up the tab you or Uday?

COCKBURN: I think there were some confusion at the bill afterwards. It's quite difficult to pay with these people. I think it was on the hotel bill eventually.

GROSS: Right. People don't charge Uday, I guess.

COCKBURN: It's not a big issue at the end of dinners like that. We don't sort of sit back glancing at your watch wondering where the bill is and seeing if you can have it charged or anything.

GROSS: Right. Patrick Cockburn is co-author of "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein." He'll be back in the second half the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

With more of our interview with Patrick Cockburn, co-author with his brother Andrew of the new book "Out Of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein." Patrick Cockburn is senior Middle East correspondent for the "London Independent."

The allies are continuing to bomb Iraq. Yesterday, U.S. and British warplanes conducted three raids.

Do you think that we're basically engaged in a low level war with Iraq now?

COCKBURN: Yes, I think that's quite a good way of describing it. I mean, we now have 30 pretty well daily bombings of -- by U.S. and British aircraft of Iraqi positions. We had a big bombing in December, but it's all escalating.

And there's always a chance that it could escalate very fast, either a plane gets shot down or a plane crashes for operational reasons -- just by accident. And then it would escalate once again. So the pot is boiling more and more, and there's always a chance it's going to over boil. And then, to my mind, it's almost inevitable it will over boil.

GROSS: And then what?

COCKBURN: Then -- then we'll see. One of the problems is even this low level war doesn't -- it may wound the regime a little, but it doesn't come close to overthrowing it. There was a chance to overthrow it at the end of the Gulf War.

George Bush, for not bad reasons, decided that they wouldn't push on to Baghdad. The Gulf War was really a very conservative war to return the Middle East to what it had been before the invasion of Kuwait. He felt he didn't have a mandate. And these were not unreasonable things.

But it's -- I think it's a mistake to try to get concessions from Iraq that you can only get if you've wholly defeated somebody in a war, which they failed to do. At some point there should be an agreement which concludes the Gulf War. Sanctions were one way which were described in Washington as keeping Saddam in his box.

The problem is that 22 million Iraqis were also in the same box, and they suffered more than Saddam. It was very much a shotgun approach. If there is to be any end to this conflict, other than the whole regime disintegrating or been overthrown which people have been trying to do for a longtime them and it hasn't happened.

I think it has to be much more focused on, for instance, not overall sanctions against the country but very tight restrictions on weapons or the materials to make weapons being brought into the country. Inspection of the existing facilities in there that would really limit the offensive capability of the regime. Otherwise, the real casualties of all this are ordinary Iraqis.

GROSS: You were in Iraq during the December bombing. Where did you stay?

COCKBURN: I stayed in the El Rashid (ph) hotel, which is the big hotel which is normally used by journalists there. It's -- it has a number of advantages. One of which is it has its own big generators. So it's impossible during the bombing that they'd hit the power stations or the power lines as they did in '91.

If you're staying in a place which is dependent on general power then suddenly the elevators don't work, the lights go out, you can't work. So there aren't too many places where you're guaranteed that the building is probably going to go on functioning.

GROSS: It must be so surreal when you're at the El Rashid hotel to know that missiles are coming in to the city, the anti-aircraft fire is exploding in the air and there's like a press conference going on the roof. All the cameras are on the roof shooting it, you know it's being televised live around the world on CNN. It's just so -- it's so bizarre.

COCKBURN: It is bizarre, and it's almost a new type of warfare which is sort of deceptive, because you see on camera and night vision equipment often exaggerates the amount of light that is coming from the anti-aircraft going up. That you see these great explosions -- and it often exaggerates the extent of the bombardment.

It did this in '91 as well, because people don't realize that Baghdad is a very big city. It's a very flat city. It extends a long way. So it looks as though this is total destruction of the city. It isn't. I mean, it's quite heavy, but it gives a slightly deceptive feel to how bad -- badly the Iraqi government or the Iraqis in general are being hit.

GROSS: Where did you position during the bombing in December?

COCKBURN: I was -- I mean, around town. The bombing took place at night. The Iraqis have very tight security. You could see at crossroads, army, the secret police, the Ba'ath Party, the ruling party with the sub machine guns -- the Yugoslav sub machine guns, several police had all the intersections. The whole town closed down so there were very few people on the streets.

What they like you to do is be on the Ministry of Information roof where the television cameras were. But you could also see it from the hotel, or where ever you were. Some places you would go to afterwards which had been hit or you could see it from the road. Some places that they kept you well back.

GROSS: So did you stay on the roof, stay in your room?

COCKBURN: I did both. I mean, I was on the roof of -- on top of the hotel -- on the roof. I also sort of drove around a bit.

GROSS: At night.


GROSS: You felt safe doing that?

COCKBURN: No. Not safe for two reasons: one, you think the chances -- the percentage of chances of being hit are pretty small. But when you're driving around you sort of somehow you don't feel that's safe. The other thing is what always happens with bombing I've seen in other places being shelled is that anybody who is driving on the streets starts driving like crazy.

They don't stop at traffic lights. They don't stop at intersections. So actually, in reality, there's probably a greater chance of being hit by another car.

GROSS: What about all the armed guards?

COCKBURN: Well, the armed guards there -- I mean, I always try to get them -- I had a driver to drive slowly for two reasons: one, that I could see some other cars that were rocketing around, and if they hit this is going to be really serious.

Secondly, if you don't see guards at an intersection and you're driving fast, you could drive straight through them just by accident. And again, that could be very dangerous because they might open fire.

GROSS: Right. Do you think of Saddam Hussein as being brilliant in his paranoia?

COCKBURN: Yeah, that's well put. There is a brilliance there. He's extraordinarily clever at -- in terms of Iraqi politics -- internal politics -- of balancing the different factions, of creating multiple loyalties. By which I mean somebody might be loyal to for tribal reasons or because they're a member of the party or because they've received money or they're part of his family.

To prevent anybody uniting behind him -- and this is what makes it so difficult to deal with Iraq or predict policy. At various moments he seems extraordinarily subtle and cunning, but with a great capacity to over play his hand when things are going well for him.

I think partly there's nobody around him who really dares ever contradict him. I remember one Russian diplomat in Baghdad, who had a lot of duties with the leadership, and I said, well, what about the sort of -- the more so-called liberal members of the elite like Tariq Aziz who's -- often acts as the spokesman.

And he said, well, look, the only safe thing to do if you're meeting with Saddam and you're part of his entourage is to be 10 percent tougher than the boss. You kind of work -- he said what they do when you work out in their mind what the boss' policy was -- Saddam's policy was, and then to reiterate that with 10 percent more.

So he's not a man who necessarily gets good advice. He also is somebody who doesn't know the outside world, so his grossest errors were attacking Iran in 1980 and attacking Kuwait in 1990. And the two decisions have a lot in parallel. That he had a sense that he was in a strong position. But he exaggerated the strength and both brought disaster.

GROSS: Well, Patrick Cockburn, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

COCKBURN: Oh, thank you. I enjoyed it.

GROSS: Patrick Cockburn is the co-author of "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein." Our interview was recorded Thursday during his visit to the U.S.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Patrick Cockburn
High: Journalist Patrick Cockburn. He's been a senior Middle East correspondent for the "Financial Times" and the "London Independent." He's the co-author of the new book, "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein." He'll discuss the bombing campaign against Iraq, Saddam's hold on power, the royal family, and more.
Spec: Middle East; Media; War; Bombings; World Affairs; Patrick Cockburn

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Patrick Cockburn

Date: FEBRUARY 23, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 022302NP.217
Head: Otis Clay
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The Memphis-based soul label Hi Records was famous for its recordings by Al Green, Syl Johnson, O.V. Wright, Anne Peebles and my guest Otis Clay. Clay recorded with Hi from 1968 to '74.

His most popular Hi recording was "Trying To Live My Life Without You." The song was later recorded by Bob Seger. Clay's latest CD, "This Time Around," reunites him with Hi record producer Willie Mitchell and members of the Hi rhythm section, including drummer Howard Grimes.

Clay grew up in Mississippi and has spent most of his adult life in Chicago. He got his start singing gospel music. Before we meet him, let's hear a track from his latest CD, "This Time Around."


Please somebody take your hand
And slap some sense into me
Open my eyes cause I'm too blind to see
I've got this woman she's messing my mind around

She knows that I love her
But still she tries to put me down
I know I'm just a fool
Someone she can use

But I can't help myself
Who knows I can't help myself
Now listen baby

GROSS: Otis Clay, your new CD reunites you with some of the people you used to work with in Memphis back in your Hi Record days. "Hi" as in "Hi Records." What does being with this group bring out in you do you think?

OTIS CLAY, SOUL SINGER: Well, we're so compatible musically, and we worked together over the years for so long. We work very well together. We genuinely love each other. And we're all from -- although I live in Chicago -- I'm from that area down there. So it's a bunch of home boys together there and really enjoying the music.

GROSS: I'd like to hear a little bit about your early days. Would you describe for us where you grew up in Waxhaw in the Mississippi Delta?

CLAY: Waxhaw's a junction, you know, there's nothing there anymore but the general store. And we were farmers, my family. I came from a big family, 10 of us, and I'm the youngest of 10. So it was, you know, church on Sunday of course and sometimes during the week. And a lot of singing in the family because in my family being in the church and everything you had musicians and choir members and my grandfather was a minister. We had all these kinds of things happening around the house all the time.

GROSS: And what did your family farm?

CLAY: Cotton, corn, soybeans, things like that.

GROSS: Did you work in the fields?

CLAY: Yeah. Didn't like it, but I did. Had to.

GROSS: Did the family sing in the fields, and if so what were the songs that you liked to sing then?

CLAY: Oh, yeah. Yeah. There was a lot of things. The thing about that is -- during that time was we had to sing spiritual. We weren't allowed to sing secular music although I was very familiar with it, I was hearing a lot of it.

But we weren't allowed to sing it, especially if our parents were around. We could do it when we were by ourselves, you know, we could see all the things that we wanted to. But the parents didn't allow us to sing anything other than gospel music.

GROSS: So here you are growing up in the Mississippi Delta, which is one of the most important places for the blues, and you're not supposed to be listening to or singing secular music. Did the blues seem to be dangerous to live up to its reputation as the Devil's music?

CLAY: Well, that's what it was. It was the Devil's music. You know, if you sing the blues you're going to go to hell. Plus, you'd probably get a whoopin along with it.

GROSS: Right, more immediately.


Did you have a way hearing the blues?

CLAY: Well, yeah, you know, we were listening to WLAC at night out of Nashville. And you could get all these grand sales that they would have coming out of Ernie's Record Mart and all those places where you get five songs for -- oh, I forget what the price was but it was very, you know, nothing like today. You know, you get this package deal, you know, the soul special and this gospel special. And we would mail order a lot of that stuff out of Nashville from Ernie's Records.

GROSS: What if your parents saw it when it came in the mail?

CLAY: Well, the parents, they knew very well all the things that was happening there. But again, we weren't allowed to listen -- weren't allowed to sing blues or secular music period.

GROSS: You mean you were allowed to listen but not to sing?

CLAY: Yeah, we could listen.


CLAY: Because my family -- you heard of the old Saturday night fish fry, well, although my mother -- my mother -- well, you have to understand, first of all, my mother was very religious and my father was a gambler. Now put that together and see what you come up with. But that's the way it was.

And most of the time on weekends and things like that, you know, they would have -- well, there was quite a bit of the bootleg, you know, moonshining going on too. And on these weekends they would have this fish fry and they would have chittlins and all these things that they would sell. And a lot of people would come around.

And that's how you heard -- the children, you know, we would be at all these gatherings and we would hear what the grown folks were doing, but we weren't allowed to do it.

GROSS: Would your father go to church on Sundays and repent on Sunday for the gambling he did during the week?

CLAY: No. No. Most of the time he was recovering from the night before.


You know, but occasionally, you know, he would -- that was so rare. It was acceptable. It was a known fact that was somewhat -- you know how the male, they were always doing somethings that they should have been repenting for.

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is soul singer Otis Clay. Now, you toured with several different gospel groups in the '50s and in the '60s. I have one example here of your gospel singing, and it's wonderful so I thought I would play it.

And it's with the Gospel Songbirds. This was recorded in 1963.

CLAY: Oh, wow.

GROSS: And the song is "If I Could Hear My Mother." And I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit about this group, the Gospel Songbirds.

CLAY: The sad part is -- with that CD, most of them have passed on now. And it really saddens me when I listen to that. Because we had a great time together. You know, these groups were like family, brothers. You know what I mean? Extension of the family.

And we really truly loved each other, and I was with that group for quite a few years. That was the last local group that I sang with before I went with the Sensational Nightingale's. The Gospel Songbirds, we were quite a group.

When you listen -- I have that CD and when I listen to it I say, hey, we were pretty good.

GROSS: Yes. I agree. So let's hear it. This is you singing lead, "If I Could Hear My Mother."


I believe I'll testify God help me
While I have a chance
The reason why I like to leave my testimony with you
I may not ever see you ever again

But before I go
I'd like to sing my favorite song
And it goes something like this

How sweet and happy
God have mercy I can hear
The memories calling

Every now and then
Oh (unintelligible)
My weary heart will be
If I could hear my mother

She used to pray

GROSS: That was Otis Clay singing lead, recorded, I believe, in about 1963, the Gospel Songbirds. Otis Clay is now best known as a soul singer.

You're living in Chicago and have lived there for many years. How did you get from Mississippi to Chicago? Why did you decide to move?

CLAY: I really didn't. It was a family thing. I always say Chicago is a suburb of Mississippi. Everybody leaves Mississippi and comes to Chicago. And that was the great migration that was during that time, but my family didn't really move to Chicago when we first left the South. We moved to a little town or city in Indiana called Muncie, Indiana.

I live there -- and I was very young. My mother died while we lived there, and I came and stayed in Chicago briefly with an uncle. And my maternal grandfather also lived here. And we -- I didn't stay long. I went back to Mississippi and I lived with an older sister of mine for about a year and a half or so.

And then I came back to Chicago to live with my uncle. That was around -- that was about 1956.

GROSS: What was it like for you to live in a big city after growing up in a small rural part of the Mississippi Delta?

CLAY: It was exciting of course, but again, you were always close to friends that you knew from the South. You know, so that kept it -- that made it a bit more comfortable. You needed that type of thing when you're in the big city. You know, to be in a big city and a stranger and no friends, I mean, I would think that would be unbearable.

GROSS: My guest is soul singer in Otis Clay. His latest CD is called, "This Time Around." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is soul singer Otis Clay. His latest CD is called "This Time Around."

How did your life change when you started singing soul music and moved away from gospel?

CLAY: Well, I didn't -- I never really quite moved away from gospel because I have a gospel album right now that's been around for quite some time and is a very popular album.

GROSS: So you're doing both.

CLAY: Yeah. I still do a lot of gospel concerts. Get with all my old friends that are still in the gospel field and we tour sometimes. And so, it really didn't change an awful lot, because I still have the same friends and we get together as much as possible.

GROSS: Now I believe when you first started to record secular music you cut a few singles for Columbia Records, but those singles weren't released. And when they weren't released, my understanding is that you hid them from your friends who sang gospel music because you didn't want them to know. Why not?

CLAY: Well, we come back to that decision. You know, I had my little popularity as a gospel singer, you know, and you had enough people talking. So that was one time I didn't brag about it, you know. And I'm really glad that I didn't because it was never released.

And that would have really gave them something to talk about. And, again, I just kept it a secret.

GROSS: Would they have been angry at you or feel that you couldn't sing with them anymore if they knew about those records?

CLAY: Oh, of course. You know, at that time it wouldn't have been acceptable. Now people are a bit more broad minded, but at that time, no, I wouldn't have been able to remain in the group if they released the secular.

GROSS: What do you think is your greatest record? Do you have any?

CLAY: Oh, well, you know, we were talking about that. Someone asked me that question. There was a record that I recorded several times. It was called "If I Could Reach Out and Help Somebody." I recorded it first for Hi in 1973 and then I recorded it on the first live Japan album. And it's also on the gospel album too, so there's about three versions of it out there.

GROSS: Why don't we hear the first version of it, the Hi records version of it. Before we play it I'd like to know what it is about the song that gets you to single it out as being the best.

CLAY: Well, the song -- the spiritual side of it, the charitable side of it -- and I genuinely feel that way. You always want to make a difference in this world. If there's something that you can do, something you can help someone along the way. We try to do as much charity as possible because we realize that we are blessed. And we like to pass that on. I think that's our duty. We are our brother's keeper.

GROSS: OK, well, this is "If I Could Reach Out" sung by Otis Clay from the '70s.


Sometimes I get so depressed
Same thing won't go my way
But if I could reach out and help somebody
And I've had a good day

If I could help some sister or brother
Show a little love
Once (unintelligible)
If I could reach out and help somebody

And I've had a good day
If I could reach and help somebody

GROSS: That's Otis Clay recorded in the mid-'70s back in his days with the Hi record label. And he's reunited with some of those people from Hi records on his new CD, "This Time Around."

You grew up singing with your family. You have, I think, 10 -- no, eight children of your own. Did you all sing together when the kids were young?

CLAY: Well, they sing in church. They've pretty much took -- they've taken pretty much the same road that I took. Although none of them are same professionally. My daughter hopes -- she decided one New Year's Eve that she was going to sing with me. She said, I want to sing. I said, OK. That was her debut, and that was the last time she walked on stage.


But that's -- everybody's in church. You know, pretty much the same thing.

GROSS: Otis Clay, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

CLAY: And thank you so much. I appreciate it.

GROSS: Otis Clay's latest CD, "This Time Around," is on the label Bullseye Blues and Jazz.

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Otis Clay
High: Chicago soul/blues singer Otis Clay. The Mississippi native got his training in gospel. As a teenager he joined the gospel/pop harmony group Blue Jay Quartet, and then worked with a number of gospel groups. In the 1960s he signed with One-derful Records and recorded the singles "Tired of Falling In and Out of Love," "A Flame in Your Heart," and "Got to Find a Way." Later he signed with Hi Records and recorded the hit "Trying to Live My Life Without You." His newest release is "This Time Around."
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Otis Clay

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Otis Clay
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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