Shuggie Otis is everything you want in a funk and soul artist. He's an enigmatic virtuoso with strong musical roots, credibility and coolness to spare.
He’s best known for his 1974 record, Inspiration Information, which was arranged, written and played (mostly) by Otis himself. The result is a cult classic, a masterful record that inspired the likes of Prince and Lenny Kravitz, and has been sampled in songs by Outkast, Beyoncé and many other hip-hop artists.
On April 16, 2013, Epic/Legacy reissued the long-out-of-print Inspiration Information, with four bonus songs that were recorded in 1971. Along with the reissue, there's a second disc, called Wings of Love, which features live and studio songs recorded between 1975 and 2000.
INSERT AUDIO INTERVIEW Listen to Shuggie Otis talk about why he’s been gone so long, what it’s like to be back, and hear some stories from the making of his signature album.
Along with the record, Otis has been on a worldwide tour that has taken him to Japan, Australia, North America and Europe. On the phone recently with Holger Petersen, the Alberta-based host of Saturday Night Blues, Otis reminisced about days on Canadian road, performing with his famous father.
“I remember Edmonton very well because it was the coldest place I’ve ever been in my life!” Otis said over the phone, laughing. “But I had fun in the cold.”
Otis was born in Los Angeles in 1953, and his dad was legendary R&B man Johnny Otis. With that kind of lineage, and the likes of Etta James and Jackie Wilson hanging around, it’s no wonder the younger Otis gravitated towards music.
“It was like I was in Disneyland hanging out with my dad,” Otis said. “He was so inspiring and so inspired with so many different things, so many hobbies. He would not only raise, but breed, fancy breeds of pigeons.”
“He used to like to paint and do cartoons of his band,” he continued. “I would watch him paint these cartoons for hours. I’m more into writing short stories. But music is there to stay. The guitar playing will never go away.”
That guitar playing began at a young age, and by the time he was a teenager, Otis was playing onstage as part of his father’s band. The rumour goes that he wore dark sunglasses and a moustache so he could work in nightclubs.
Otis cleared things up.
“On the weekend, I would put on dark glasses, not a fake moustache, that was a lie my father made up, but I did wear dark sunglasses for about nine years onstage. I saw the music business through a peeping hole.”
In 1970, when Otis was still a teenager, he released his first record, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, which was produced by his father. That was followed quickly by 1971’s Freedom Flight, containing the song “Strawberry Letter 23,” which later became a funk hit for the Brothers Johnson. It endures as a popular hip-hop sample, and was featured in Beyoncé’s 2003 song “Be With You.”
“I was lucky in the fact that it was sampled over and over again,” Otis said. “And when Beyoncé sampled it, I could probably live off of this money for the rest of my life. Well, I was doing it with the Brothers Johnson. But, at one point I became broke, I remember three times in my life where I was flat broke.
“That’s the way it is with people like me who are hard-headed.”
Otis has had a tumultuous relationship with the music business since his success in the ’70s. He admits part of it was his own doing.
“I would have rather done what I did, which was go out and get a day job rather than put a group together of a bunch of hard-headed guys and taken little chitlin' circuit tours here and there and played what they wanted me to play,” Otis told Petersen. “I didn’t want to do that anymore.”
His perfectionist attitude kept him from staying involved in the music game. If he couldn’t control the circumstances of the band, the recording and the sound, Otis didn’t want to have any part of it. But he was able to do what he wanted with his third and final release, Inspiration Information.
Recorded in Hawk Sound, a backyard studio that was built by Epic Records through a deal with his dad, Otis detailed the lengths to which he went for Inspiration Information.
“They build [the studio] in February of ’73, and slowly I start to finish the album. I went to another studio to mix it, where a lot of famous funk bands recorded hits. Rufus, Billy Preston, a lot of people.
“And I mixed every song down, and every song sounded OK except one. But for one song I had to go back to my studio, and that song was ‘Inspiration Information.’ I even edited the single version with razor blade and tape.”
Despite being hounded for a finished product, Otis took his time so he could fully implement his vision.
“The reason that album sounds the way it sounds is because it’s the way I wanted it to sound. It has somewhat of a quiet sound,” he explained. “I read on the internet that it was a headphone album, which makes sense because some of the stuff you can’t hear. I was listening to a Michael Jackson song the other day, and all of a sudden I hear these little bells in the song that I never heard before and I heard this song like ‘Human Nature’ hundreds of time.”
But after his initial three record deal was complete, Otis was shut out of the business.
“I could not get a record deal for 40-some years. I went to some labels where I knew the owners, some big guys, over and over, and got a flat no. When at one time I either worked for them or they wanted to sign me. And then all of a sudden, it was like, ‘Don’t touch Shuggie Otis,’ for some reason I’ll never know what that is, but it doesn’t really bother me.”
Otis has needed to keep his patience, to achieve his level of perfection and control. After 40 years of waiting, he’s getting another opportunity to share his music, on his terms.
“Now that I’ve started up again in such a way where I have the right people behind me, I can perform the kind of music I want the way I want to with the right kind of equipment and the right kind of venue and the right sound engineer,” he said. “It’s working for me right now. I’m very thankful. I have a big smile on my face every morning.”