Born in Los Angeles, CA on November 30 1953, Johnny Otis Jr., "Shuggie" as he became known, was playing guitar with his father's band by his early teens. Indeed Shuggie was still only 15 years of age when he cut his first record with CBS, Al Kooper Introduces Shuggie Otis, in 1969.
In that same year he played a guitar solo on his father's number 29 R&B hit, "Country Girl," issued by Kent Records. His guitar skills were so adept that during his teen years he would have to wear dark glasses and strategically apply black ink between his nose and mouth to appear old enough to perform in the clubs where his father's band played.
Shuggie's follow up LP, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, produced by Johnny Otis Sr., was released on the CBS imprint, Epic Records. Freedom Flight followed in September 1971. It was this LP that included what was perhaps the seminal track of his entire career, "Strawberry Letter 23," a tune that has since been described as probably the last great psychedelic soul single of the '70s. In fact Otis wrote "Strawberry Letter 23" for his girlfriend, who used strawberry scented paper for her love letters to him.
Freedom Flight has been favourably compared to his 1974 masterpiece Inspiration Information. Again produced by Otis Sr., it featured seven stand-out tracks with all but one written or co-written by Shuggie including the heart-tugging "Someone's Always Singing," "Ice Cold Daydream," and the bluesy "Me and My Woman," that was co-written by Otis and Gene Barge (best known for his association with Chess Records), Chuck Willis and Natalie Cole. The contribution of Otis on guitars, organ and percussion combined with Wilton Felder on bass, George Duke on keyboards and the backing vocalists, Clydie King, Venetta Field and Shirley Matthews made this a very special piece of work. Shuggie's own version of "Strawberry Letter 23" stands up remarkably well against the better known Brothers Johnson cover. It's slower and Otis injects genuine tenderness into it.
On Inspiration Information Otis played all of the instruments on a selection of jazzy and Latin-tinged R&B numbers. In addition the LP was one of the first releases to showcase the electronic rhythm box. Besides the title cut, the album included the sly "Sparkle City," the sweet ballad "Outtamihead" and the lush, strings-laden "Island Letter."
It has been argued that Inspiration Information was simply too far ahead of its time to be understood and it's true that it should be viewed very much in the context of early '70s experimentation. However, whereas artists like Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott Heron and Stevie Wonder, who were all experimenting too, went on to great things, Shuggie Otis slipped from view with his career descending into a catalogue of â€˜might have beens.'
He spent so long recording Inspiration Information that the record label dropped his contract. Ironically, around that time ace keyboardist and session player Billy Preston phoned Otis to say that the Rolling Stones wanted him to join the band and fill the lead guitar spot vacated by Mick Taylor. Shuggie declined. He later explained that, "I had my own group and my own label deal. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. I had my own identity." Plagued by lingering health problems Shuggie faded from the spotlight, emerging only for occasional session gigs.
So severe was his decline that in Oakland, where he lived, he was regarded as a down and out, but that started to change in 2001 when Inspiration Information was re-issued on the Luaka Bop label. Shuggie, by then aged 48, received glowing reviews and appeared on the David Letterman Show, the Conan O'Brien Show and popped back up on the charts.
The re-issued Inspiration Information was actually a compilation of tracks from his original Freedom Flight and Inspiration Information albums and fittingly featured the still retro-cool "Strawberry Letter 23." Although Shuggie Otis will always look back on his great releases of the 70's as his finest hours, this artist whose influence can be found in the output of both George Clinton and Prince can enjoy his latter success and perhaps view it as redemption, as a verification that he was always great, he somehow just got left behind.
By Denis Poole, www.smoothjazztherapy.com
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