SHUGGIE OTIS-INSPIRATION INFORMATION.
SHUGGIE OTIS-INSPIRATION INFORMATION.
Today I am going to write about an artist and album that many people will not have heard of. To me that is a tragedy, because this artist is one of the most talented musicians you will here, and the album is a minor classic. The artist is Shuggie Otis, and the album is Inspiration Information.
Shuggie Otis was born Johnny Alexander Veliotes in November 1953, in Los Angeles, California. His father was legendary Johnny Otis, R&B maestro, musician, bandleader and music impresario. Aged two, Shuggie Otis began playing guitar, and when he was twelve, began playing professionally in his father’s band. Because of his age, he would often have to don a disguise, to play in the late night, nightclubs.
Although Shuggie Otis perceived as just a guitarist, that is not the case. He is a multi-instrumentalist, and as well as singing and playing guitar, can play piano, organ, drums and bass. His influences are wide ranging, and were influenced by his father’s wide group of musician friends. Otis counts jazz, blues and R&B as influences on his music. I do not like categorizing music, because sometimes that puts people of listening to new music, but Otis’ music is variously described as a mixture of R&B, soul, funk, jazz and blues.
The music that was popular when Otis was growing up would also have a huge influence on his musical development. Artists like Sly and the Family Stone, Love and guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix, would all influence Shuggie Otis. His first big break came when Al Kooper asked the fifteen year old Otis to play on the second volume of his Super Session albums, which would be entitled Kooper Session. Otis had big shoes to fill, as in the previous album, Stephen Stills and Mike Bloomfield had featured on the album. Kooper Session was recorded in just one weekend at a studio in New York. This was his debut as a recording artist, albeit, as a session musician. His second recording session was not far away.
When Otis returned to Los Angeles he joined his father and a singer called Delmar “Mighty Mouth” Evans, to record an album entitled Cold Shot. This album was released on the Kent Records, a Los Angeles label, in 1969. The trio would release another album Snatch and the Poontangs.
Shuggie Otis released his debut album later in 1969 on Epic Records. It was called Here Comes Shuggie Otis, and featured a number of guest artists. Joining Otis on the album were father Johnny, Leon Haywood, Wilton Felder and Al McKibbon. Having such well known musicians join him on the album, further contributed to his burgeoning reputation. Blues legend, BB King, referred to Otis as his “favorite new guitarist” in a magazine interview. Otis went on to play and record with numerous artists at this time. This would include soul legends Etta James and Bobby “Blue” Bland, blues musician Eddie Vinson and with Frank Zappa. Shuggie Otis would play bass guitar on Peaches En Regalia on Zappa’a Hot Rats album.
The album which really brought Otis to the attention of the music buying public, was his second album Freedom Flight. The album was released in 1971 on Epic Records. Freedom Flight features his best known single Strawberry Letter 23. Although Otis was a multi-instrumentalist, and played many of the instruments on the album, he was assisted by a number of musicians. Two of the most recognizable are George Duke and Aynsley Dunbar. Both Freedom Flight and Strawberry Letter 23 entered the Billboard 200. However, Strawberry Letter 23 was heard by George Johnson, who played the song to producer Quincy Jones. They both loved the track, and decided to release a cover version. The cover version was a huge hit for the pair.
In 1974, the album that this article is about, Inspiration Information was released. Apart from the horns and strings, Otis played every instrument. Only one single that was released from the album, the title track, Inspiration Information entered the Billboard 200. The album had not had the impact that had been hoped. After three years work, Shuggie Otis’ work had been in vain. However, not long afterwards, Otis would be offered two amazing opportunities.
The first of these opportunities occurred, when Billy Preston approached the twenty-one year old Otis, asking him if he would join the Rolling Stones on their forthcoming world tour. Incredibly, he turned this offer down. Not long after that, Quincy Jones approached Otis about producing the follow-up to Inspiration Information. Again, Otis declined the offer. Other people would make similar offers, all of them were turned down.
After this, Shuggie Otis acquired a reputation for being a slow worker, when it came to the recording process. Epic Records were not happy about this, and Otis’ contract with Epic was nullified. This left him without a recording contract.
During, and after this period, Shuggie Otis became someone who valued his privacy. He was now a married man, having married Judith Peters, formerly Miss Mercy, a member of the GTO’s, an all-girl group created by Frank Zappa. The other change in his life, was by now, the couple had a young son, Johnny III, known as Lucky. He too is a professional musician and producer.
After Inspiration Information, Shuggie Otis would record no further albums of his own work. His days as a solo artist were over. His only work was as a session musician. Even then, he only worked, and recorded, with his father Johnny’s various musical projects.
A few years after the release of Inspiration Information, Otis’ marriage broke-up, and he was divorced. He would then marry Lillian WIlson. She was the daughter of Gerald Wilson, the legendary, and pioneering trumpeter and bandleader. The couple would have one son, Eric, who is now a musician and producer.
Although Shuggie Otis would release no further albums of original material, he would release two compilation albums. In 1994 he released Shuggie’s Boogie: Shuggie Otis Plays The Blues and then In Session: Great Rhythm and Blues in 2002. Since then, his only other recording appearance was on a track from Mos Def’s 2004 album The New Danger. Otis played on the track Blue Black Jack. That was the last time that Shuggie Otis played on any recording. However, his music has been widely sampled, by artists including Beyonce`, Outkast and R2D2. So maybe you will have heard Shuggie Otis’ music, but not realized it. I will now tell you more about Shuggie Otis’ 1974 album Inspiration Information.
Inspiration Information begins with the title track Inspiration Information. What a way to start any album, never mind this album. This song is a glorious and joyous, love song, that is also a huge slice of sunshine pop. Whenever I hear this song my mood is lifted. It has a feel-good factor. Listen to it, and it will make you want to sing and dance, laugh and cry. Inspiration Information truly is one of my favorite songs, ever. If this was the only song on earth, I could listen to it for eternity. Everything about the song is perfect, Otis’ vocal, the arrangement and production are of the highest quality.
Island Letter sees the tempo change. Whereas Inspiration Information was an upbeat song, Island Song is a much more laid back affair. The song sees Shuggie Otis sing the song slowly, and his vocal is surrounded by the lushest of arrangements. This track has a melancholy feel to it. Why is that? Quite simply, it is a combination of the lyrics and the instruments. They draw you in, envelope you, yet at the end, leave you with a sense of sadness. To me, this is the sign of a good track, one that can change your mood, and make you experience a wide range of emotions. Like Inspiration Information, Island Letter features a group of top class musicians, who together, have produced a masterpiece of a track, albeit, one that was musically, ahead of its time.
Sparkle City starts with a combination of guitar, piano and bass. Then other instruments begin to enter the track, and prepare to dazzle and tantalize your senses. The track has all sorts of influences, from jazz, soul to funk. Here, the sound is predominantly funky. No, that is wrong, the sound is totally, and gloriously, funky. Nearly six minutes of some wonderful funky music, where the band and Otis feed off each other, coming together, as one, having produced a fantastic track.
When you hear the next track, Aht Uh Mi Hed, you always feel that a lovely track is going to emerge. From the beginning of the track, it promises much, however, for a large part of the track, the sound is too full. There are too many sounds and noises which clash, and distract your attention. Too many instruments feature on the track. At times, the sound seems muddled, almost confused. It could do with the track being stripped back, and rebuilt. If you take out the extraneous sounds, there is a great track waiting to be discovered, a lost gem, waiting to be polished. However, at the end of the track, I am left disappointed and frustrated, annoyed and saddened almost, at what might have been, at the great track this could, and should, have been.
Happy House is merely a short song, a musical interlude, lasting a minute and a quarter. It is a snatch of what could have been, had the song been developed. It is a distraction, but not an unpleasant distraction. The sound is undulating, and just when you have got used to the unusual vocal performance by Otis, the track is over.
On the next track,Rainy Day, Otis find his a-game again. The sound on this track is very much jazz influenced. It is a lovely melodic, yet atmospheric, track, one that I wish was longer. There is a lot of space within the song, allowing the song to breath. Rainy Day also features a great string arrangement. When I hear this song, it reminds me of something that would feature on one of the classic film soundtracks of the 1960s or 1970s.
XL-30 is another of the shorter tracks on the album. Here, the sound is much more experimental than other tracks. The track begins with drums playing, then the organ joins the fray. During the track, the drum beat is fairly constant, whereas the organ plays an unusual time signature, and adds some otherworldly effects to the mix. There is almost a free jazz feel, and sound, to this track. I do not believe that the track works. It lacks the melodic aspect of much of Otis’ music, and the sound on XL-30 almost jars.
Thankfully, Pling! is a totally different style of track. It is a lovely meandering instrumental. It slowly unveils its beauty during the four and a half minutes of the track. Throughout the track, the tempo is consistent, and instruments float in, and out of the track. Each of them go towards building this incredible sonic soundscape. When I hear some of the instrumental tracks, like Rainy Day and Pling!, I would love to have heard a whole album of this type of music. I believe that this is something Shuggie Otis could do brilliantly, especially if they were of the standard of Pling!
Not Available is the final track on the Inspiration Information. Just like Inspiration Information was a great start to the album, Not Available is a great way to close the album. It is a bright and breezy, slice of summer. A track that regardless of how many times you listen to it, you will always hear something different. Like the previous track Pling!, Not Available is another instrumental, and like Pling! this is another great instrumental. The song features a wide variety of instruments, but the guitar, bass and drums provide the springboard for the track. The other instruments all play their part, and contribute the icing on the cake. All of this, makes Not Available a fine way to end the album.
That is the story of Shuggie Otis’ 1974 album, Inspiration Information. In my opinion, it is one of the most underrated albums of all time. However, the problem with Inspiration Information is that it was away ahead of its time. When you look back at the music that was popular back then, this album was totally different, it was innovative, and pushed the musical boundaries. Sadly, commercially the album was not successful, and that was the last original material we heard from Shuggie Otis. That was tragic. Here was a hugely talented musician, with so much to offer, who could have achieved so much, and he disappeared almost, without trace. However, we should be grateful that he recorded three albums, and that this album, Inspiration Information, contains so much wonderful music. I can thoroughly recommend this album to anyone who has not heard it before. Should you go out and buy this album, you will fall in love with the music on it. It will be constantly on your stereo, and will be the soundtrack to your summer. Standout Tracks: Inspiration Information, Island Letter, Sparkle City and Pling!
SHUGGIE OTIS-INSPIRATION INFORMATION.