By Jaime Lees
By Roy Kasten
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"My father's band would have rehearsals in the frontroom, and I'd watch Jimmy Nolan play his big Gibson [guitar], and that would be very impressive to me," Otis recalls over the phone from his home in Northern California. "There was something about seeing Johnny 'Guitar' Watson come over and play his Stratocaster and Don and Dewey bring over their Stratocasters and Telecasters that they had gotten from Fender. It's really crazy that I was able to be around some of the people that started rock & roll."
At age 6, the budding guitar virtuoso made his commercial recording debut playing bass on Pee Wee Crayton's 1959 self-titled album. In 1968, he supplied bass and guitar on his father's record Cold Shot and contributed guitar to Frank Zappa's solo debut, Hot Rats, a year later. After signing a deal with Epic in 1969 -- the year he was legally old enough to drive -- Otis seemed assured of a career as comfortable and successful as his father's, which by then spanned a quarter-century.
But a steady foothold in the industry eluded him over the next three decades. Today his significance has been relegated to footnote status -- as author of the Brothers Johnson's 1977 platinum hit "Strawberry Letter 23." Currently Otis has no record contract, and his band, which toured the West Coast sporadically in the 1980s and '90s, recently disintegrated.
All of this would be of little consequence -- just another casualty of the grim, hope-dashing entertainment machine -- if not for one album, Otis' 1974 masterwork, Inspiration Information. Not that Otis' three previous outings were forgettable: 1969's Al Kooper Introduces Shuggie Otis and 1970's Here Comes Shuggie Otis were muscular West Coast blues LPs laced with white-hot guitar riffing, and 1971's Freedom Flight showcased his formidable knack for songwriting, reaching beyond the blues tradition into pop, jazz and psychedelic rock.
Inspiration Information marked Otis' crucial stylistic breakthrough. Its nine songs still occupy their own dreamy headspace, fluttering between the earthy soul of Al Green's The Belle Album and the cosmic skywriting of Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland while refusing to settle anywhere near either one. The warm, sparkly organ and lackadaisical optimism of the title track and "Happy House" predicted the smooth black pop hits of Morris Day and Prince in the '80s, and the dramatic, classically arranged string sections of "Island Letter" and "Aht Uh Mi Hed" mirrored Barry White's early disco work. The last four songs are instrumentals that balance an avant-garde-ist's examination of guitar and organ with a percussive abstractness that's thoroughly modern. David Byrne, whose Luaka Bop label is releasing the album on compact disc for the first time (under the subtitle World Psychedelic Classics 2: California Soul), sums up the sound thusly in the liner notes: "His trippy R&B jams are equal to Marvin [Gaye's] and Curtis [Mayfield's], but somehow more contemporary sounding."
Inspiration Information is the sort of album that at the very least should have earned its author a spot in the pantheon of '70s greats name-dropped by such thrift-store funksters as Beck and DJ Shadow -- not just for the rare groovalicious appeal of the music itself but for the pioneering ways in which it was constructed. In the early '70s Otis' father convinced Epic Records to build a 16-track studio behind their LA house, allowing Shuggie to record all the instrument parts himself (except the strings and horns, which were played by the music students of his future father-in-law, famous jazz bandleader Gerald Wilson). The one-man-band concept hadn't been explored much yet; the only popular artists who had toyed with it were Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney. Otis also was one of the first artists to use the drum machine on a commercial recording.
"I was doing some recording at Columbia's studios on Sunset Boulevard, and it was divided into four studios at the time," he explains. "It just so happened that Sly Stone was using the one next to mine. I would see him from time to time, and I would also listen through the walls and hear this drum machine, a sound I had never heard before. It was cool, it was interesting, it was right on time."
Otis used the newly available Rhythm King drum machine to layer a metronomic beat under his drum parts and build a fabric of strikingly synthetic multiple tracks, an effect especially apparent on the album's last cut, "Not Available."
"I don't like to brag, but that's something that the original hip-hoppers must have heard," he says with a laugh. "I think that as quiet as it's been kept, Inspiration Information has been inspirational on many musical presentations. But people don't know that, because it never [reached a broad audience]."
When the record was released in 1975, it sold poorly, although the title tune rose to No. 56 on the R&B chart. Still, Otis felt confident enough in the viability of his solo career to turn down an offer by the Rolling Stones to replace guitarist Mick Taylor.
"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."
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."