This is a post by associate editor Blake Madden.
Last year, Capitol Records released Beach Boys: The Smile Sessions, an album that was once urban legend. This year, the documentary Searching For Sugar Man reintroduced the world to Rodriguez, the 1960s psych-folk superstar that never was.
It’s true: people love second chances, especially when they offer a rediscovery of lost treasure. This must have been what was on David Byrne’s mind when his Luaka Bop label re-released Shuggie Otis’ Inspiration Information in 2001.
This album, a difficult-to-pigeonhole mixture of funk, jazz, and soul, drew label co-owner Byrne to compare Otis to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Written, produced, performed, and recorded almost entirely by Otis before his 21st birthday, Inspiration Information was his most recent studio effort… dating back to 1974.
Otis turns 59 this month, and Inspiration Information just celebrated its 38th year of existence. But despite heavy praise from the likes of Rolling Stone at the time of its rerelease, and the approval of Byrne now, Otis and his music are largely as overlooked today as they were then.
Even the mighty oracle of The Internet offers little information about Otis aside from a few basic facts about his career. A Google search provides as many “Whatever happened to…” entries as there are original reviews of the man’s work.
So whatever did happen to Shuggie Otis? And why does Inspiration Information deserve another re-examination?
Here Comes Shuggie Otis
In 1969, it seemed like Shuggie Otis was in the beginnings of a legendary musical career – something between the next Stevie Wonder and the prequel to Prince.
In that year alone, a 15-year old Otis was the lead guitarist for Al Kooper’s Super Session, played bass on the Frank Zappa tune “Peaches en Regalia”, backed up his father, the legendary bluesman Johnny Otis, on Cold Shot and the x-rated Snatch & The Poontangs albums, and had released the first of his three solo albums for Epic Records, Here Comes Shuggie Otis.
He had already been playing alongside his father in blues clubs for three years, wearing shades and strategically inking up his face to simulate facial hair to pass as older.
Then, in 1970, B.B. King was quoted in Guitar Player magazine, saying that Otis was his “favorite new guitarist”.
And that’s where the Shuggie Otis story slows down, before coming to a-near complete stop less than five years later.
Here Comes Shuggie Otis showed promise, but neither his 1971 release Freedom Flight nor the 1974 release of Inspiration Information, his final album for Epic, made an impact on the charts.
The length of time between the two albums, coupled with Inspiration Information’s lukewarm reception caused Epic Records to drop Shuggie, in turn, pushing the already shy and reclusive musician away from the recording industry for good.
He would continue to play periodically with his father, and a rumor persists that at one point he was asked to become a touring guitarist in The Rolling Stones, a position he declined.
His greatest musical success to date comes in the form of royalties on a record he wasn’t even involved in making: his song “Strawberry Letter 23” from Freedom Flight was remade into a million-plus selling record by The Brothers Johnson and producer Quincy Jones in 1977.
The only recordings featuring Otis made after 1974 come from the countless hip-hop and R & B artists who have sampled his tracks. The Luaka Bop reissue of Inspiration Information, featuring the original full album as well as four tracks from Freedom Flight, represents the near entirety of Otis’ meaningful musical legacy.
Why It’s Been Forgotten Before
Inspiration Information can still turn heads thanks to its diversity and the unique voice behind it, but it’s also a good example of how pop music success can be a proverbial ‘game of inches.’
Echoes of funk and soul hits of the era abound in Otis’ music, but it doesn’t live in those spaces so much as it crashes on their couches for a few nights. A deep listening reveals at least a half-dozen places where Otis zagged further into obscurity rather than zigging inward towards the mean.
Instrumental breaks flow on for just a bit too long. Guitar and keyboard tones are just a touch too grating at times. “Sparkle City” begins with a two-minute instrumental intro, while The first half of “Island Letter” plays like radio-friendly soul, and its last half is all meandering guitar and keys.
“Happy House” again sits in familiar feel-good territory but fades out after just a minute. These choices don’t make Inspiration Information any less of an album, but it’s easy to see why its initial reception was mixed at best.
The record features more instrumentals than songs with vocals, much like late 70s Bowie & Eno albums like Low and Heroes, which are top-heavy with accessible, vocal-driven tunes, and rounded out by second-halves filled with searching instrumentals.
Bowie and Eno could get away with such things because they were Bowie and Eno; But a naïve and relatively unheralded Otis? Not so much. And from what little is known about Otis, it’s clear his focus lay solely on the production of the music itself, and that he spent little time thinking about how he could make it – or himself – more marketable.
Why It’s Worth Remembering
From the beginning of Inspiration Information’s title track, and Otis’ layering of crooning vocals over shimmering descending organ, flashes of soul luminaries like Wonder and Gaye are evident. (Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings heard them, too, covering “Inspiration Information” for a 2009 Dark Was the Night benefit compilation).
But Otis is less concerned with crafting radio-friendly soul classics and more interested in exploration within his arrangements, including call-and-response funk rhythms that dance off each other, wandering instrumentals, and concocting a diverse soup of his influences.
One of those influences, Sly and the Family Stone, shows up in Otis’ extensive usage of early drum machines which he mixed in with natural drums, something he, Sly, and very few others were doing at the time. On a tune like “Xl-30”, the drum machine takes center stage, changing the complexion of the song to the point where it plays like an 8-bit Nintendo game set in a nursing home.
Softer tunes like “Island Letter” and “Rainy Day” have an almost Bacharach-like feel, as Otis contrasts lush horns and strings- the only instruments he doesn’t play on the album- with his own dry rhythmic accompaniment. “Sparkle City”, “Aht Uh Mi Hed” (its title another nod to Sly), and “Happy House” are vehicles for Otis’ soft and vulnerable vocals that stay in traditional funk and soul territory, but with an air of whimsy about them unique to Otis. Album closer “Not Available” plays like an exercise in early ‘math-funk’. If ‘anti-folk’ has been legitimized as a sub-genre, then Otis’ effort is an ‘anti-Motown’ record, one that borrows Motown’s grooves and feel, but eschews its efficient assembly of verses and choruses for something looser and more experimental.
Inspiration Information’s best moments may be its most familiar and traditional, but its most interesting ones put it as a record that stands outside of time; one that might have been recorded in 1974, or yesterday. It squirms out of easy classification, and is made all the more remarkable when you remember that it was built from the ground up by a shy 20-year old. In the end, it exists like the man himself: a phantasm, a legend that never was.