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Almost Famous 

Shuggie Otis
Inspiration Information
(Luaka Bop)

In 1974, as Shuggie Otis was putting the final touches on what would prove to be his final solo album, he got a call from keyboardist Billy Preston, who'd been touring in Europe with the Rolling Stones. Guitarist Mick Taylor was leaving the band, and Preston had been enlisted to invite Otis to replace him. But the 21-year-old passed. "I had my own group," Otis told an interviewer in 1995. "My own label deal. I just wanted to do what I want to do. I had my own identity."

Epic Records released the album he'd been working on, Inspiration Information, in 1975, but when it was reissued by David Byrne's Luaka Bop label a few weeks ago, it sounded fresher than almost anything released in the last year. Its spare arrangements, sonic restraint, and unconventional compositions anticipate a number of contemporary musical streams, from the gritty soul of D'Angelo to the patchwork constructions of Beck. More impressive still, Otis played everything on it, with the exception of the horn and string charts.

But Epic dropped him less than a year after it came out, and Otis never made another record under his own name. In fact, he hasn't even played anything from Inspiration Information live since the year the album came out. He lives in Windsor, California, about an hour north of San Francisco, and has spent most of the last 26 years doing low-key blues gigs, some with his own group but most with the band led by his father.

You can't explain Shuggie Otis without discussing his father, the legendary R & B bandleader Johnny Otis, who encouraged his son to follow in his footsteps almost as soon as he could walk. Born Johnny Veliotes to Greek immigrants in 1921, he grew up in a racially integrated section of Berkeley, above his parents' grocery store. From an early age he identified with the African-Americans who were his neighbors--he loved their music, married a black woman, and in the 1978 book Honkers and Shouters, he told music historian Arnold Shaw, "I cannot think of myself as white."

By the mid-40s he'd put together a Kansas City-style swing band, which he led from behind the drum kit, but before long economics forced him to pare down from nearly twenty members to about eight. He changed his sound accordingly, condensing the smooth blues of artists like T-Bone Walker, Charles Brown, and Roy Milton into a tight ensemble jump blues that would help lay the foundation for rock 'n' roll. Vocalists like Little Esther, Johnny Ace, Etta James, and Big Mama Thornton scored numerous hits singing in front of his band, and in 1957 he signed with Capitol Records. A year later, he had a Top Ten pop hit under his own name, "Willie and the Hand Jive," which sold more than a million copies. He's never stopped working--not just performing but also writing, producing, working A and R, deejaying, hosting a TV show, and teaching music history at Berkeley.

John "Shuggie" Otis Jr. was born in November 1953. By age 4 he was already playing drums, and at 11 he picked up the guitar. He made his recording debut a year later, contributing guitar to a couple tracks by one of Ray Charles's Raelettes. At 13 he joined his father's band, the Johnny Otis Show, and at 14 he was jamming with the likes of B.B. King. When he was 15, he and his father both signed with Epic Records. He laid down fiery blues guitar on his dad's 1968 album, Cold Shot, and in 1969 he played bass on three cuts from Frank Zappa's Hot Rats. That same year he saw his name on the front of an album for the first time: a straight-up blues-rock record called Al Kooper Introduces Shuggie Otis. He followed it in 1970 with the similar-sounding Here Comes Shuggie Otis.

He took some chances on his next release, 1971's Freedom Flight, four tunes from which are included as bonus tracks on the reissued Inspiration Information. Its most famous song was "Strawberry Letter 23," which reemerged as a crossover hit for the Brothers Johnson in 1977. Although the signature xylophone riff is common to both versions, the original is rawer and trippier, particularly in the proggy, phase-shifting guitar coda. "Freedom Flight" itself is 12 minutes of post-Hendrix instrumental wanderlust, set against spare wind-chime tinkling, tenor sax flutters, and electric piano arpeggios courtesy of future fusion heavy George Duke. "Ice Cold Daydream" bastes the bayou funk of the Meters in swirling psychedelia, while "Sweet Thang," a swampy blues cowritten with his dad, sounds like something from Dr. John's "Night Tripper" phase.

Yet as much as this material departs from the straightforward blues rock of his first two albums, Inspiration Information makes it seem almost conventional. The album, which took three years to make, could nominally be labeled soul, but it's distinctly tinged with rock, and Otis, who sings in a smooth, lazy croon somewhere between Aaron Neville and Allen Toussaint, never goes for the cheap thrill, refusing to overemote. The opening cut, "Inspiration Information," which climbed to number 56 on Billboard's R & B chart, sounds pretty normal for the time--tuneful, feel-good funk with wah-wah and groovy organ--but the weirdness begins on the following cut, "Island Letter."

Otis was one of the first pop musicians to use the Rhythm King, an early drum machine, and aside from some additional quiet cymbal patter, it serves as the sole timekeeper. Airy guitar arpeggios and flanged organ washes give the tune a narcotic glow that's enhanced by his shy vocals. After an extended gentle funk break he kicks in with a brief, spacey electric piano solo that wouldn't have been out of place on a Sun Ra record. Barry White may have been whispering his way into darkened boudoirs at the time, but not even he would dare drag his band in there with him.

On "Aht uh Mi Head," two tracks later, the Rhythm King returns; flute tootles and Philly-soul-style strings weave in and out of the lo-fi groove as Otis delivers the lyrics with a sublime slackness that sounds like a blueprint for everything Sam Prekop has ever sung with the Sea and Cake. "Happy House" splices three distinct sections together--a la Beck--in the course of a minute and 16 seconds, then just stops. The instrumental "XL-30," which features a jarring midphrase key change, is another space oddity, its echo-laden organ interjections zipping around a fluid but relentless organ bass line; the Sun Ra influence here is undeniable. "Pling!," another slo-mo instrumental, isn't as bizarre, but its buildup, from spare, tremulous electric piano chords into a hot-tub jam bolstered by a compact horn chart, is just as arresting. "Not Available" weds some Isaac Hayes-style hot buttered soul to a massive reggae backbeat.

When Inspiration Information was released, the R & B charts were dominated by soul singers who underlined the emotional content of their lyrics and presented their tunes signed, sealed, and delivered to the listener: Gladys Knight, Roberta Flack, Bobby Womack, the Jackson 5, the Spinners, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder. Early disco hedonism was also in the air, in popular tunes by Kool & the Gang, George McRae, and the B.T. Express. The R & B that crossed over to the pop charts was relatively straightforward as well: the Ohio Players' "Fire," Earth, Wind & Fire's "Shining Star," the Staple Singers' "Let's Do It Again."

But none of that is to say that another tune from Inspiration Information couldn't have captured the popular ear. The real problem may have been that Otis wasn't supposed to be a soul pioneer. He'd been signed as a blues artist in the late 60s, when Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, and John Mayall had temporarily made the music the province of hairy white guys. In 1994 Legacy released Shuggie's Boogie: Shuggie Otis Plays the Blues, a compilation of material culled from the Kooper session, Shuggie's first two solo records, and Johnny's 1970 album Cuttin' Up. Nothing from Inspiration Information was included. In the liner notes, blues authority Pete Welding dismisses the album as a misguided attempt to crack the mainstream: "Young performers of Shuggie's generation no longer viewed the blues as a vehicle to express themselves, nor one that would lead to fame and fortune--not in ways that other, more popular idioms with much wider commercial potentials could lead. Shuggie shared in this belief, and found himself pulled in these directions. Unfortunately, however, he has been unable to duplicate in these more modern idioms the artistry and the success he had with the blues at the start of his career."

But Otis remembers things differently. As part of the Epic deal, the label had financed a home recording studio for him and his father, and while he was making Inspiration Information there, he says, the label never checked up on him or gave him any commercial advice. And he didn't solicit any. "I was just trying to get the music out how I felt it," he says. But when he turned in the fruits of his labor, he says, the label turned away. "At a certain point, when they saw that I was going away from the blues, I think that they kind of became unsupportive," he says. "I don't know why, or what they were thinking, but they didn't really know how to go with it."

According to Otis, his father--one of the most commercially savvy syncretists in history--commended his desire to carve out his own niche. "He was supportive of me putting it together how I wanted to do it, to play the bass, drums, guitar, and keyboards, to write the songs, do the vocals, and write all the arrangements," he says. But years after the record was released, Johnny did admit to his son that he wasn't crazy about the music.

Apparently nobody at Epic was either, because after the title track peaked on the R & B chart in 1975, Otis says, Epic stopped working the album, and he was dropped. "Right after the album came out I didn't feel anything different from the company, but I guess I was so lost, so into my own musical world, that maybe I just didn't really care anymore. But I think they showed me that they cared even less," he says. His band toured sporadically on the west coast and in the southwest. "It didn't surprise me that it didn't hit," he says. "I knew it was a little bit different, but it didn't bother me. What bothered me was when they dropped me from the label, but I thought I'd get another record deal right away."

Before he was cut loose, Otis had begun working on a stylistically similar follow-up. He spent the next few years trying to find a home for it, shopping the tapes with no success--even after the Brothers Johnson scored with "Strawberry Letter 23." "I would take my tapes and have appointments with people at record companies," he says. "They just didn't want to have anything to do with me. I remember one A and R person at Elektra, she said, 'Oh, you're Shuggie Otis, you're a legend.' I'm sitting there waiting for her to listen to the tape and she said, 'OK, we're not really interested in this sort of thing.'"

By the end of the decade Otis had grown so disillusioned with the business he took on a series of day jobs, the specifics of which he declines to discuss. His debilitating disappointment is easy to understand--hailed as a prodigy at 14, he was washed-up at 22, rejected almost immediately upon making his first personal musical statement. Still, in the late 80s he returned to music full-time, playing blues and R & B with his father, and in the mid-90s he led a blues band featuring his brother and his two sons.

Around then, support for Inspiration Information began bubbling up from the underground. The album became a hot commodity for England's soul revivalists--the scene that also helped revive the career of Chicago soul folkie Terry Callier--and adventurous rock figures like Stereolab's Tim Gane and High Llamas leader Sean O'Hagan publicly praised it. A few years ago, the Chicago-based on-line soul specialty store Dusty Groove sold more than 400 copies of a limited edition vinyl-only reissue by Sony Music Special Projects. David Byrne heard a copy and decided that Luaka Bop would license the record from Epic. With his endorsement, it sold nearly 8,000 copies in its first two weeks.

Otis says he was surprised that anyone was interested in the album and feels "blessed" that it's being heard by a whole new generation. On May 1 he'll perform "Strawberry Letter 23" on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, and on May 5 he'll sit in with the band on David Letterman's show. He also says he hopes to release some new music. He told me he'll be shooting for a vibe similar to the one on Inspiration Information, which could be a little tricky. Twenty-six years is a long time to be away from a vibe. And that vibe may not seem so radical when the "alternative soul" of D'Angelo and Erykah Badu is almost universally acclaimed. Then again, after all Otis has been through, maybe that's exactly what he's hoping for.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Ochs Archives.

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