It had been three years in the making. Yet on the October night in 1974 that Epic Records released the nine song masterpiece Inspiration/Information, the artist who created the album wasn’t old enough to buy himself a celebratory bottle of bud.
Had his label offered to get the drinks in, at just a month shy of his 21st birthday, living under the state jurisdiction of California, Shuggie Otis - that’s pronounced Shuggie as in Shoogie’s Boogie, not shuhhgie’s buggy - would not have, legally, been allowed to take a sip anyway. Which might seem a tad ridiculous, given it was Shuggie, born Johnny Alexander Veliotes Jr, who as a teenage blues geetar-playing wunderkind on the chitlin circuit, wrote (and performed) the original version of the trippy, psychedelic soul freak out, Strawberry Letter 23.
Truth was, record company brass were in no mood to celebrate his third album. Having let Shuggie off the leash, held by his Dad (R&B legend Johnny Otis) who produced the first two albums Here Comes Shuggie Otis & Freedom Flight, they allowed Shuggie to do it all solo - not solo in the traditional bloke-turns-up-and-copies-the-demo-and-sings sense, but totally on his tod. Shuggie’s name racking up sleeve credits for playing guitars, bass, piano, organ, vibes and percussion, as well as all vocals, production, composing every lick, writing every lyric and preparing the mix – the only exceptions being the engineers who handled recording and the addition of an orchestra for sweetening, the parts for which, of course, Shuggie arranged. After the label patiently waited for what they hoped would be an - albeit contemporary sounding - few steps from the blues project, what they actually got nobody expected.
“The response back in the seventies? There wasn’t any.”
Recalls Shuggie; taking a breather from rehearsing his new band in San Francisco, in preparation for an upcoming tour across Europe. “The title song (like the album title which shall here-on-in be referred to as Inspiration/Information with the forward slash in between the two words, simply because it’s how Shuggie spelt it in an email) got a bit of airplay, but it didn't hit, at least not for the record company.”
An R&B chart placing of #56 suggests CBS-Epic hadn’t exactly thrown the kitchen sink at the promo campaign, as Shuggie’s A&R exec back then Steven Paley openly admitted for the Luaka Bop re-issue in 2001: “he was assigned to me but I had very little to do with him. I had absolutely nothing to do with the record other than ‘Hi, how are you?’”
”Yeah, I no longer had their attention. I felt as though I let them down by not being a "Strictly Blues Player",” says Shuggie. “It was my belief that they simply found the music unattractive, plus it wasn't 'pop' … because I didn’t want that. Perhaps hearing my personal brand of sound turned them off a bit. Some people were surprised, but not delighted. Everyone can't tune in to the same groove.”
Up to that point Shuggie’s groove had been on the funkier side of the blues. His virtuoso playing so skilled, his Dad dismissed accusations of nepotism to hire his son before he could grow facial hair. New York producer Al Kooper, recording a swift sequel to the million selling Super Sessions, was also impressed enough to have featured player Shuggie share the album cover on his Super Sessions Volume 2. Returning to LA, Shuggie immediately joined his Dad’s trio The Johnny Otis Show along with Delmar “Mighty Mouth” Evans, cranking out two albums in 1969, the acclaimed Cold Shot, and an extremely rare, humorous, nasty slop credited to debutants Snatch & The Poontangs.
“My father and Delmar nicknamed me Prince Wunnerful!” Recalls Shuggie, the group idea sparked by X-rated Cold Shot song The Signifyin’ Monkey. “I used to wear this long red velvet coat, and they would constantly tease me about it, but I was just as amused as they were. We all had to have pseudonyms because the lyrics were so comically filthy.” One of the great slop albums, Snatch & The Poontangs, pre-dates the early rap styles of James Brown & Lightning Rod’s Hustlers Convention. Like an aural homage to Iceberg Slim, Tipper Gore would have loved it.
After a third Johnny Otis Show album (Cuttin’ Up in 1970) Shuggie’s reputation had grown to the point where some dude named B.B. King started talking ‘bout Shuggie Otis being his favourite guitarist. Signed to Epic by Larry Cohn, Shuggie put ink to a three album deal. The debut Here Comes Shuggie Otis was a lighter, rhythm and sky-blues proposition, notable for two tracks in particular, beginning with Oxford Gray, a seven minute tempo-shifting musical soundscape, anticipating the orchestral funk of the later Inspiration/Information. “My father, who produced the album, and me agreed that this should be the opener. We both felt that it was not only one of the stronger pieces, but a unique concept.” The other gem is Shuggie’s Boogie with its rocking chair-yarn blues intro; Shuggie aping the licks of T. Bone Walker & Elmore James, with devastating ease. 1971’s Freedom Flight album was better still. The title track coming off like Jimi Hendrix covering Miles Davis, In a Silent Way. But both that and the rubber band slop of Ice Cold Daydream were trumped by the gorgeous Strawberry Letter 23. Written by Shuggie about the strawberry scented letters given to him by his girlfriend, the superior original version was quietly overlooked on its initial release, until The Brothers Johnson, produced by Quincy Jones, remade it, riding it all the way to #5 pop during the disco era, and selling over a million copies. Earning Shuggie a phat royalty cheque. Whatever happened to those lucrative strawberry scented letters his teen sweetheart gave him?
“I made a smoothie.” Says Shuggie, deadpan. He’s more appreciative about the songs place in his career though. “Strawberry Letter 23 is my pride and joy. I really felt elated and knew it was something special. I actually wrote it with the assumption that someone other than me would make it a pop hit. I didn't feel that my version would make it big … The Brothers Johnson confirmed my prediction.”
The same year Freedom Flight landed, Sly Stone released the gurgling funk reality check There’s a Riot Goin’ On. It would have a profound effect on the blossoming 18 year old auteur. “Sly Stone has been an idol of mine ever since Sly and the Family Stone first came out. His genius is hard to define; you know he's one of a kind. I always liked his albums, but when I first heard There's a Riot Goin’ On, I connected to that groove instantly! It was the most free-form music I had ever heard. It was the perfect groove then, and it still is.” It wasn’t just the music that rubbed off on Shuggie. Sly took two years to record the Riot album following the Woodstock conquering Stand! Looking back, the marketing slogan concocted to placate fans - ‘Two Years is a Short Time to Wait for a Work of Genius” – would prove savvy on the author’s part, because how many funk albums have been of the same ‘masterpiece’ standard as There’s a Riot Goin’ On? Maybe just one; and Inspiration/Information took an extra year to finish.
During the album protracted sessions Shuggie’s mate Billy Preston called him up, with a proposition. How did he fancy replacing Mick Taylor’s guitar spot in the Rolling Stones? At that point, The Stones we’re still one of the biggest bands on the planet. Shuggie turned ‘em down flat.
“Yeah I was too deep into my own music. There were others too, Blood, Sweat & Tears and David Bowie, to recall a few, but I turned all of them down,” Otis says. “People might have thought that I was basically a sideman, because they had only seen me play with my father's band. But I had my own identity and simply wanted to lead my own group.”
Otis was on a mission, pouring every ounce of creativity into the personal statement Inspiration/Information. Each song on side one featured vocals, a loose lyrical expression of free-form soul music. Whereas - with the exception of the short minute long interlude Happy House - all of side two’s cuts were instrumental. Written in a camper van owned by his father, title track Inspiration/Information opens the record. Confirming just how closely Shuggie had been studying his hero; retaining the sesame street sunshine funk of Sly & The Family Stone’s Runnin’ Away, yet extracting it’s come-down melancholy. Shuggie sings: "Youuu making me happier/now I am snappier/while I’m with you/ahhh ..." with total confidence, sounding like an artist that’s finally the master of his own destiny. Playing every lick himself, each song is constantly moving forward, towards a predetermined destination. Island Letter is bathed in slow motion wah wah, jazzy lead guitar and a beautiful string arrangement, lush and serene, like a “cork on the ocean” to quote Brian Wilson.
“With pencil and paper I arranged all of the orchestral parts,” insists Shuggie. “For two years, I had taken private lessons with Albert Harris (movie score writer) to arrange for film and then said ‘you don’t need me anymore!’ I had already started on my first album …” during the interview Shuggie often refers to Inspiration/Information as his first album, “I mention this because, I heard someone had spread a rumour that I had a ghost writer write the arrangements … no way!! That is all me.”
The orchestra, used sparingly to embellish specific songs, hung around studio to get in on the centrepiece of the album, Aht Uh Mi Hed. Recalls Shuggie: “It came in the middle of the night, I played softly so as not to wake anyone. I was alone in my bedroom playing a Vox Jaguar Organ through a uni-vibe effect into a Fender Super Reverb amplifier and I had the Rhythm King going into that same amp, and was just experimenting with some chords. Eventually I realized that this would be one of my next songs, so after the completion of the music, I then started on the lyrics. I was writing about a person who talks in their sleep and they mutter a flashback to a special girl. Shortly after I wrote it, we laid the track down in studio 'D' at Columbia studios in Hollywood.”
Like Sly, expertly using the Rhythm King drum machine, Shuggie is able to articulate a soulful and delicate percussion sound on Aht Uh Mi Hed (a title influenced by Sly’s Mice Elf School of writing) the kind of which Hip Hop producer Jay Dee based a career on. However, the rest of the musical elements are all down to Shuggie’s genius. Beginning with what sounds like the low hum of a motel air conditioner, the momentum of the groove gently strolls forward, alá Harvey Keitel entering the bar in Mean Streets, sweeping up every musical morsel in its path. The sublime orchestral intersection, featuring flute, sets up the subsequent bridge, with Shuggie’s dry tenor getting so caught up in the groove he’s audibly heard half whistling along at 2:45, like he’s lost in the music ... out of his head. If A Change Is Gonna Come was Sam Cooke’s answer to Dylan’s Blowing In The Wind then Aht Uh Mi Hed, Shuggie’s finest achievement, is the funk generation’s answer to The Beatles A Day In The Life.
The soft and sombre instrumental Rainy Day keeps things chilled on side two - showcasing Shuggie’s fine jazz flourishes on his Gibson guitar. Before the shift into the ground-breaking XL-30. Today, almost 40 years later, it still sounds futuristic - like Miles Davis’ Milestones has been given a synthetic reboot.
“I've been a Miles Davis fan for many years,” says Shuggie, responding to the comparison. “He seemed to be looking for the perfect note each time he blew. He had a free form methodical approach that's very unique and utterly cool. I love his compositions.”
The finalé Not Available merges jamming funk and strings in a way Sly struggled (A&R exec Steven Paley also handled Sly’s string smothered Epic release Small Talk in ‘74, with the luxury of retrospect, he might agree they backed the wrong horse), that catches a second wind with fatback drums so hard it forces you to return the needle to the beginning of side one (*the only, and I admit this is ungrateful, gripe with the Luaka Bop reissue, is that with the “value for money” addition of four Freedom Flight songs it somewhat diluted the impact of the albums nonet perfection).
Album turned in, according to Shuggie it wasn’t just the record company that didn’t get it. Johnny Otis – who also served as executive producer on the project - wasn’t so sure either.
“At first my Father was totally on my side, wanting me to be a star. He made me a feature act in his show, but when I started to stretch out and explore different idioms, his feelings changed. He had distanced himself from me. He told me that he didn't care for my first production, so I started to resent him … as well as many others. I started to become an unlikable person to be around for many people.”
Following the failure of Inspiration/Information to get the due credit it deserved, Shuggie’s deal with CBS expired. Not much is known about Shuggie’s existence following the end of his contract. He continued to feature on the odd outside session for Billy Preston (It’s My Pleasure) and his Dad’s heritage label Blues Spectrum, but a new solo offer never transpired. At the age of 22 it appeared Shuggie Otis had retired.
“Actually, I was feeling better than ever. I really didn't miss being in the “biz” at all. I was having fun on a much higher level. Money doesn't buy happiness, all of the money in the world could not compare to my personal life. Not then, not ever. I was just getting turned down by record companies, one after another. I suddenly realized that I had been blackballed, which didn’t surprise me. It didn't stop me either,” says a defiant Shuggie. “My love for music is too strong for any organization to ever stop me from recording, or performing. It's my job. I never stopped recording music in my own home studio. Without a label I just wasn't able to share it.”
Why does Shuggie think he was blackballed?
“That answer may sound a little hasty, but I do believe it to a certain degree. Some of the A&R people with whom I met, wanted to have someone else produce my album and you know, that was a ‘no, no’ to me … I made that clear right away. Obviously, they wanted me to be popular, but by their standards, and I wasn't about to work with any producer. I produce myself,
I mix all of the songs by myself, alone.”
A few songs have made it out of the vaults (or should that be aht uh tha volts?). The late seventies, frantic groove of Special has all of the elements of Shuggie’s very best work. Rhythm King, wah wah, riff laden guitar playing and a chorus that hooks. And a song that snuck out recently via iTunes on Shuggie’s indie label - Tryin’To Get Close To You is a killer, recorded in 1976. “I was just jamming along with a drum machine for a little while,” explains Shuggie. “And then ideas start to spread, starting out with the rhythm guitar parts first. Everything else just then fell into place.” The song proves that musically, immediately after his deal, Shuggie was far from damaged goods. Anticipating the success a young Prince would achieve later in the decade.
“If I had my own record company then, I would have had many, many, albums out. I have an abundance of old material, some that will never be heard. Some of it is too sacred. Right now, I have a label and I'm currently recording an album with me playing all of the instruments … as usual.”
In the meantime, Sony/Columbia are preparing a long overdue remastered version ofInspiration/Information, scheduled for an April 2013 release - rumoured to include a bonus CD of tracks from the vault titled Wings Of Love. Shuggie is set to bring his band to Europe (and continue across the US) for "The Shuggie Otis Rite ", facing a much different audience reaction than he would have experienced back in the seventies. The success of David Byrne’s 2001 Luaka Bop reissue alerted a whole new generation of fans to the genius of Shuggie Otis.
“It was awe-inspiring! I always thought that there would be a re-release, but the response from listeners really took me by surprise. To be honest, some of the happiest moments of my life occurred while being out of the limelight, but still I always knew that I would play music for a living for the rest of my life, and also be back one day.” Even Beyoncé samples his records.
“It’s flattering sometimes,” Shuggie concedes. “But I never really liked the idea of someone sampling my songs. I eventually gave in just to survive. I've heard my influence in other people's music for quite some time but now I'm ready to go full fledge. I have decided to spend the rest of my life writing music, fiction stories and performing publicly on a continual basis. I think I deserve a turn at bat now!”