Lib at Large: Shuggie Otis makes his Marin County debut

from the Marin Independent Journal

The New York Times called Shuggie Otis “one of the more enigmatic figures in pop music history.” Billboard described him as a “beloved soul shut-in.” When he re-emerged from obscurity in 2013 after being out of the public eye for some 40 years, a review of his show at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom in JazzTimes magazine was headlined, “The reclusive singer-songwriter-guitarist returns from … somewhere.”

The onetime child guitar prodigy, now 61, resumes a much-belated comeback Aug. 28 at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, his Marin County debut.

The son of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bandleader Johnny Otis, Shuggie is best known for writing “Strawberry Letter 23,” a 1977 hit single for the funk group the Brothers Johnson.

His mystique stems in large part from 1974’s “Inspiration Information,” now considered a psychedelic soul masterpiece. It was his third album for Epic Records, and the label believed so strongly in the young gun’s phenomenal talent that he was given carte blanche in the studio, writing and arranging all the songs and playing all the instruments himself except for horns and strings. It took three years to finish, and its use of synthesizer sequencing and other electronica — so passe now — was ahead of its time in 1974.

 

“When ‘Inspiration Information’ came out, that’s when things started to fizzle,” Otis says, speaking by phone from his new apartment a few blocks from the beach in Santa Monica. “The label didn’t know how to market me. It wasn’t personal at all, but it’s not your everyday music and it might have been a little awkward for them. I was young, exploring. It was very experimental. I had free reign, and I just put together things that sounded good to me.”

“Inspiration Information” would go on to become a cult classic, influencing Prince and Lenny Kravitz and other future superstars, like Beyonce and Outkast, who sampled it for their music. But at the time of its release it barely registered on the R&B charts and failed to yield a hit single. The label dropped him from its roster, but it’s not like he didn’t have other offers.

 

He’d played guitar in his father’s band when he was barely a teenager, wearing dark glasses and a fake mustache to look older so he could work in bars and nightclubs. He was just 15 when producer Al Kooper showcased his precocious virtuosity on the second installment of the prestigious “Super Session” album series that had earlier featured Stephen Stills and Mike Bloomfield — pretty solid company. He could have capitalized on his reputation as a hotshot young guitar slinger, but he had other, bigger things in mind.

 

“Billy Preston called, saying he was in Amsterdam with the Rolling Stones,” Otis recalls. “They wanted to know if I’d like to take (lead guitarist) Mick Taylor’s spot. I said, ‘Well, I’ve got my own group now, and I’m really into it.’

“I was a big fan of the Stones, but I was finding my sound and was really coming into my own. I couldn’t see myself becoming a sideman to anyone.”

Quincy Jones had scored a hit with the Brothers Johnson’s version of “Strawberry Letter 23” and wanted to work with the talented young man who wrote it. Otis’ mother encouraged her son to take Jones up on his offer, but that would involve incorporating someone else’s ideas into his music and Otis couldn’t imagine doing that.

 

“Quincy Jones wanted to produce me, and I was thoughtful about it. But I knew at one point I wouldn’t have any control of the music. I knew deep down inside that wouldn’t work and it just kind of fizzled out.”

Looking back, Otis can see how he may have come off as arrogant, but he wanted to make music his way and didn’t see any reason why he couldn’t keep doing that.

“I already had a record company cater to me,” he says. “Being put in the limelight at 14 years old all of a sudden you’re not just Shuggie the kid around the house anymore, you’re Shuggie Otis, guitar player, who’s supposed to be something. I’d already read my first article, which was a rave review, which I probably shouldn’t have read. But if people want to say I was spoiled, so be it. But the thing was. I was given that freedom and that was a blessing to me, for a young musician with something to say. I wanted to see what I could come up with. I felt I had something to offer.”

 

But the music business seldom gives an emerging star more than one chance at the brass ring. And before he knew it, Otis’ time had come and gone. Although he kept making music, record companies weren’t interested in signing him. He pretty much dropped from sight, content to live quietly with his wife, Teri, and sons Lucky and Eric, in Monrovia, a smoggy town east of Los Angles.

“There were times in my music career when I had to take breaks from the limelight,” he says. “But that was OK. I had a really great life. I was married and had kids and lived a normal life. I was living off my royalties and at one point I went and got a day job, a physical, menial job that anyone could get. My wife worked in a library. I found that I didn’t have to feel the pressures of being Shuggie Otis the music star anymore. I could be a normal human being.”

 

But Otis isn’t really a normal human being. He has too much talent to be ignored forever. And, sure enough, he was rediscovered in 2001 by tastemaker David Byrne, who reissued “Inspiration Information” and some songs from Otis’ 1971 album “Freedom Flight” on his prestigious indie label Luaka Bop.

In 2013, Sony Music Entertainment put out a double CD of “Inspiration Information” and an album of unreleased music Otis wrote during his years away titled “Wings of Love.”

Otis’ wife died in 2001 and his sons were grown, so he went back on the road, touring internationally in 2013 in support of the double album.

His L.A. shows were a little shaky, but he got raves in New York. He had a brief setback, falling ill after that tour, but now says he completely recovered and has plans for a new album, his first in eons, that he hopes to have out by the end of the year on Cleopatra Records.

His new band includes his brother, Nick, on drums and son, Eric, on bass. He’s just gotten back from a 23-day tour, the longest he says of his career.

“I was always waiting to come back out with something like this,” he says. “I never gave up. I just knew I had to wait. I was fortunate enough to have a really nice life anyway, regardless of not being in the limelight. But I wasn’t in a hurry to be in the limelight anyway. Now I’m enjoying it and taking full advantage of it, but only because I feel like I’m supposed to. I don’t know how to explain it. I’m having a lot of fun with it, probably more than ever. I’ve got a second lease on life.”