In 1974, 21 year-old blues guitarist and session musician Shuggie Otis released his third solo record, titled Inspiration Information. It consisted of 9 tunes: dreamy hazy psychedelic soul ballads, downtempo funk driven by primitive drum machines, ethereal wisps of song that came on like cotton candy and were every bit as difficult to clean out of your ears once they got in. But despite its high quality, the album failed to reach a receptive audience – it barely scraped the Billboard Top 200 chart, and quickly faded into obscurity.
Three years later, funk/disco act The Brothers Johnson recorded ‘Strawberry Letter 23’, a Shuggie-authored track that had originally featured on his 1971 album Freedom Flight. The Brothers Johnson version was a massive hit, reaching #5 on the singles chart.
Other important elements of the Shuggie Otis story: His father was Johnny Otis, a groundbreaking rhythm and blues bandleader and musician. He played alongside artists as varied as Etta James, Frank Zappa, and Al Kooper, and turned down an invitation to join the Rolling Stones. And after the lack of attention his trio of solo albums received, he fell off the music industry’s radar, only surfacing occasionally to appear on his father’s records.
And then, as the 20th Century melted into the 21st, music fans were suddenly wild for Shuggie Otis. David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label released Inspiration Information on CD, to good sales and great critical acclaim. Repackagings of old sessions featuring Shuggie showed up on record store shelves. And he himself emerged from wherever he’d disappeared to, played a few small shows (to mixed reviews), and then vanished again.
Now, in 2013, Sony Records is gearing up to release a deluxe version of Inspiration, filled out with bonus tracks and an entire new album on a second disc. And Shuggie Otis is back. He’s launched his first-ever full-scale world tour, and on January 10th, he headlined a Summerstage preview show at the Highline Ballroom.
The man was accompanied by a crack backing band – keyboard, organ, bass, drums, and a three-piece horn section. At first I thought Otis’ voice had tightened up in the four decades since his last album, the purity of callow youth replaced by an equally affecting tone of wisdom and grit. But that may have just been nerves, because as the show got rolling and he got comfortable, the rough edges faded away. His vocals began to grow in warmth and power, his notes wrapping around the melodies and sliding up and down across the songs. And the band perfectly evoked the freewheeling summertime haze of those classic albums. Chugging percussion, floating brass and piccolo, a deep and bluesy sound wrapped in ripples of gauze and incense.
The set was a good mix. New track ‘Doin’ What’s Right’ began as a deep soulful groove before soaring off into extended fireworks of funkiness, classics ‘Aht Uh Mi Hed’, ‘Sparkle City’, ‘Island Letter’, and the title track to ‘Inspiration Information’ captured both the delicate beauty and deep emotive power of the original recordings.
And that’s without even mentioning the man’s instrumental skill. He plays guitar like Prince’s long-lost fairy godfather, caressing and rolling and bubbling and screaming. Wide-open runs melting into spirals of psychedelia and storms of rapid-fire fretwork. It’s like watching a bluesier Freddie Stone, a more flowing Eddie Hazel, the missing link between Hendrix’s lyricism and Vernon Reid’s technical skill. As a guitarist, he’s not only a virtuoso – he’s also a storyteller.
It was an amazing show, a triumphant return from a long-lost master. And yes, he played ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ as the encore. And yes, it was everything you could hope for.
Photos © 2013 Marnie Ann Joyce.
Shuggie Otis is now on tour. The expanded Inspiration Information / Wings Of Love is released on Epic/Legacy on April 16th. He’ll be back in New York at BB Kings Blues Club on April 18th, and we’ll be there in the front row, watching and listening.