The lost prog-soul classic rereleased, with three decades of newly unearthed demos…
The Shuggie Otis story is one of the saddest and most mysterious in rock ’n’ roll history. The son of iconic R&B bandleader Johnny Otis, Shuggie made his stage debut at the age of 12, and grew up on the so-called “chitlin circuit”, proving himself an exceptional blues guitarist. He guested with R ‘n’ B royalty (Ray Charles, Jimmy Smith, Etta James) while in his early teens, and recorded two solo albums before the age of 18.
He guested with Frank Zappa and Al Kooper but turned down chances to join the Rolling Stones, Buddy Miles, Blood Sweat & Tears or David Bowie, refusing to be a sideman for anyone else. In 1974, at the grand old age of 21, he released his masterpiece, Inspiration Information, on which he multi-tasked on guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, electronics and heavenly vocals, also writing arrangements for strings, woodwind and harp. The album flopped. Record companies wouldn’t touch him and so he spent the next three decades battling drink and drug addiction, occasionally guesting in his dad’s showband and playing the odd blues gig around California.
In 2001, David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label reissued his great lost masterpiece, introducing him to a new generation of hipsters. Shuggie even did a few live shows and TV appearances to promote it, but he had clearly not recovered from his addiction problems and the shows didn’t go well. But still the legend grew. Over the next decade, the likes of J Dilla, OutKast, Mos Def, Black Eyed Peas, Digable Planets and Beyonce go on to sample his liquid grooves and the world finally started to catch up with Shuggie’s music, much of which sounds almost suspiciously contemporary. People who weren’t even born when Inspiration Information was released thrill to its elastic funk workouts (the title track, “Sparkle City”), its delicious slow jams (“Pling!”, “Aht Uh Mi Hed”), wiggy synth freak outs (“XL-30”) and premonitions of punk-funk (“Not Available”). Now the album is getting its third release – this time complete with a wealth of tracks that Shuggie has recorded, in splendid isolation, over the past four decades.
Some sniffier critics have suggested that the hallowed status that’s been retrospectively awarded to Inspiration Information is solely down to its cultish rarity, claiming that there’s nothing genuinely “innovative” about it. There is some truth in the latter claim. By 1974, Marvin Gaye and the Temptations had pioneered symphonic soul, Stevie Wonder had turned the analogue synth into a lethal weapon for the agile funk warrior, Sly Stone had made the frictionless clank of a drumbox really groove, while Herbie Hancock had co-opted hard bop into the computer science department. What’s remarkable about the 21-year-old Shuggie is that he’s being Marvin, Stevie, Sly and Herbie *all at once* – often within the same song.
On “Island Letter” he sings of lost summer love in his smoothest Marvin croon, over a dreamy tangle of Stevie chords. In the background the same drumbox that Sly used on “Family Affair” splutters gently; a wah wah guitar throbs; and an elegantly arranged string section starts to soar. Then, after nearly four minutes, Shuggie decides that he’s not content with making one of the most perfect slices of digital soul – he decides he’s going to sabotage it by cramming in two concurrent modal jazz solos – one on a Fender Rhodes, another on a Hammond organ – and suddenly the song spins out into avant garde Alice Coltrane territory. There is nothing sonically conservative about this album – this is a collision of prog-soul, astral jazz and electronic funk that will forever sound futuristic.
The 17 “new” tracks – four of them tagged onto the CD of Inspiration Information, 13 on CD2, Wings Of Love (it’s not clear if there’s a distinction) – often have a slightly lo-fi, demo-ish quality, but they show that Shuggie’s space-age take on black music did not stagnate in 1974. Tracks such as “Destination You” and “Trying To Get Close To You” continue the motoric funk of Inspiration Information, but other tracks see him surfing subsequent currents in R&B. The magnificent “Special”, recorded in 1980, inhabits the same space as Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, taking a pulsating Africanised disco beat, a bubbling wah-wah guitar and a lopsided bassline through the dub chamber. From 1977, “Walkin’ Down The Country” is another curious hybrid, a world where the Carpenters are backed by The Sound Of Philadelphia string section and placed in a warm bath of heavenly harmonies. Also from 1977, “Things We Like To Do” sounds like an android hybrid of Steely Dan and Earth Wind & Fire, while “Don’t You Run Away” invents 80s disco. Shuggie still has his eye on the ball in the late 1980s, with “Give Me A Chance” and “Fawn” sounding like Alexander O’Neal floor-fillers. Weirdest of all is 1990’s “Wings Of Love”, a 12-minute epic that starts like a Lionel Richie power ballad, mutates into a Fleetwood Mac groove and goes into Sanatana-meets-John McLaughlin guitar meltdown.
Looping back to the start of the story is “Black Belt Sheriff”, a 6/8 shuffle written in 1978 but recorded at a 2001 concert. Playing a 12-string acoustic in an open tuning, Shuggie slices through the kind of chords that Joni Mitchell might play, but does so with a Hendrix swagger. As he switches between funky rhythm playing and bottleneck blues solos, we can hear him reconnecting with the deepest, darkest recesses of the blues.
When Shuggie’s father – the great R ‘n’ B bandleader Johnny Otis – died last year, obituarists observed that he was one of the first white musicians who chose to live “black by persuasion”. The Greek-American Nick Veliotis anglicised his name, married an African-American woman, passed off as a “light-skinned negro” and became a walking inventory of black R ‘n’ B Shuggie, born in 1953, has not only absorbed his father’s understanding of soul, gospel, blues, jazz and funk, but Wings Of Love shows him doing the same with mutant disco, salsoul, contemporary R ‘n’ B and quiet storm soul. The tragic story has an inspirational ending.
EXTRAS: Four extra tracks on Inspiration Information, from 1971-77, and 13 tracks recorded between 1975 and 2000 on Wings Of Love