Soul Survivor

Twenty-seven years ago, Shuggie Otis released one amazing record. Maybe now it'll get its due.

"I said no as fast as I did to Blood, Sweat & Tears, David Bowie, Spirit, Buddy Miles, Billy Preston. It wasn't because I had to be the leader, but at that point I couldn't be a sideman to anybody -- and I still don't want to."

Soon after, Epic canceled its deals with Otis and his dad without explanation. In the 26 years since then, only one Shuggie Otis album has been released, the 1994 best-of collection Shuggie's Boogie: Shuggie Otis Plays the Blues. Over the years, numerous rumors have circulated about his personal life, all of which are, according to Otis, scurrilous.

"There was an article in Rolling Stone years ago that mentioned that I had retired at 22, and that's the biggest fucking lie I ever heard," he asserts forcefully. "I didn't retire -- I never gave up on anything. I was thrown out of the business. But I wasn't the only one who had that happen, and I got over it."

Shuggie Otis during his glory days
Shuggie Otis during his glory days

It seems implausible that a teenage prodigy responsible for an authentic soul classic would not release original material for more than 25 years. Even Otis scratches his head while recounting his post-Inspiration Information history: "Hmmm ... I'm trying to think what the hell I did do in the '90s," he muses. According to Otis, he took a number of day jobs and raised his two sons, Lucky and Eric, who played in his blues band and now have bands of their own. Otis also recorded a live session with Etta James in 1986 and played on a few of his dad's projects.

One thing's for sure: Getting dropped from a major label was a far more devastating blow to an artist's career in the '70s. At that time, the infrastructure of niche independent labels and underground music scenes -- which can now support a musician who fails to crack the Top 40 -- didn't exist. Without the means to reach an audience, perhaps Otis' career really was, as he puts it, "thrown in the trash can." Or maybe his frustration over his soured deal undermined his confidence and, with it, his drive to make music -- like a pitcher who loses his poise on the mound after being hit by a line drive.

Avowed Otis fan Tim Gane of synth/ drone band Stereolab is similarly befuddled. Of Inspiration Information's sound he says, "It's almost like a new style of music that could've developed but never did. And that's the problem. It never developed past this record."

At 47, Otis is done struggling with the possibilities of what could have been, although his voice still reveals a restrained bitterness when he talks about the past.

"For a few years, I was kind of angry, but I'm not crying the blues about it," he says. "I'm glad that I lived my life the way I did and that I'm still here living it."

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