Shuggie Otis at Lincoln Hall, April 16, 2013. (Image credit: Chuck Sudo/Chicagoist.)
This past Tuesday, C. and I went to go see the R&B legend Shuggie Otis perform at Lincoln Hall. When we arrived, there was a sign on the door that announced, “At the artist’s request, absolutely no photography or videotaping of the show allowed.” A few minutes into the set, a bewildered older gentleman in front of us was escorted out of the hall to have his camera erased by a security guard.
It figured. This was, after all, the famously reclusive Shuggie Otis, who all but vanished from the music scene after the release of his brilliant 1974 album Inspiration Information. Son of Johnny Otis, “The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues,” the younger Otis gained a reputation as a guitar prodigy as a teenager, performing with the likes of Frank Zappa and Etta James (whose career his dad helped launch). In 1970, B.B. King called Otis his “favorite new guitarist.” The Brothers Johnson covered Otis’s tune “Strawberry Letter 23” (from his 1971 album Freedom Flight) and turned it into a megahit overnight. After Inspiration Information—which Otis composed, arranged, and played nearly every instrument on—was released, the Rolling Stones tried to recruit Otis as their new guitarist, and Quincy Jones offered to produce Otis’s next record. But Otis kept saying no: no to the Rolling Stones, no to Quincy Jones, no to David Bowie, and no to virtually every other major opportunity that came his way. (“I didn’t want to be a sideman. At that point I was too interested in getting my own ideas out,” he said in a recent New York Times interview.) Inevitably, the offers dwindled, and Epic Records dropped him from the label. After that, it seems, Shuggie Otis sunk into the shadows, surfacing once in a blue moon for the odd gig here and there.
“Jennie Lee,” from Here Comes Shuggie Otis (1970)
But Otis’s career had a huge break in 2001 when David Byrne re-released Inspiration Information on his Luaka Bop label after years of underground buzz. Suddenly, everyone seemed to be talking about Shuggie Otis. At least it seemed like it to me, who first stumbled on Otis’s record when I was hanging out in a music store in Oakland waiting for my friend to finish running her errands. At the time, I was obsessed with neo-soul—it was the era of Maxwell’s Now, Alicia Keys’s debut, and the reincarnation of Raphael Saadiq through Lucy Pearl, and the Soulquarians collective was pumping out one great album after another, including Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, Jill Scott’s Who Is Jill Scott?, and D’Angelo’s long, long-awaited Voodoo. (There were cheesier incarnations, too, like India.Arie and Musiq Soulchild, who never could quite keep up with his own beat.) That afternoon, though, when I spotted Inspiration Information’s retro red and orange cover, slipped on the headphones and pushed play, I was instantly blown away by the lush psychedelic grooves of the title track and the hushed, sweet falsetto of Shuggie himself. Who the hell is this new guy? I thought, and checked the liner notes. Originally released in 1974, it said. I couldn’t believe how modern this stuff sounded. I felt like I was sliding into a Möebius loop, with the shimmering, organic sounds of the album transporting me into the past and doubling back into a present that had already happened, three decades ago.
“Inspiration Information,” from Inspiration Information (1974)
Critics hailed Inspiration Information as the most important re-release of 2001: Rolling Stone gave it four stars, Spin nine out of ten; Billboard called it “singular, sexy music, dislocated in time…unbelievably wonderful.” Shuggie Otis was back, except it was Prince and ?uestlove who were raving about him this time around, and J Dilla, Outkast, and Beyoncé who were covering his tunes. However, Otis didn’t stay in the spotlight for too long. His live performances for the album tour were erratic and badly received. Furthermore, as Otis recently revealed, his wife Lillian Wilson passed away days after Inspiration’s re-release, which pulled him into a deep depression, fueled by alcohol.
But Otis is making his second comeback in twelve years, and this time it seems purposeful and—most importantly—driven by the man himself. This week, Inspiration Information is being released for the third time under Epic/Legacy, packaged together with a second album called Wings of Love that consists of previously unreleased tracks by Otis spanning three decades, mostly from the ’70s and early ’80s. Otis appeared on the national stage last Friday in an energetic set with the Roots on Jimmy Fallon, and on Tuesday night here in Chicago, Otis’s show was surprisingly extroverted, including several raucous, crowd-pleasing blues numbers like “Me and My Woman” and “Picture of Love” that were also (to me) the least interesting parts of the set, though they harkened back to the era when the teenage Shuggie was honing his blues chops with T-Bone Walker and Al Kooper. Half of Otis’s set was from Inspiration Information, but the analog intimacy of the original compositions was often drowned out by the joyous blasts from the horn section. Behind the band were ceiling-high stacks of Marshall amps, ranged around the musicians and Otis himself—dandied up in crushed velvet and ruffles—like a fortress wall.
There was a lot of awkward tension during the night, however, with some high drama going on in the rhythm section. As C. pointed out, the drummer was pushing the beat too fast (“he’s got no pocket!”), and the keyboardist kept shooting daggers at him, at one point stopping completely, walking over and waving his arms at the drummer like an enraged conductor (or metronome, for that matter). At several points throughout the night, the clearly pissed off keyboardist switched off the programmed drum beats—so essential to Inspiration’s distinctive sound—which the drummer couldn’t seem to stay in sync with, as a tight-lipped Otis blazed through his guitar licks. (“I know that face,” C. said. “It’s the ‘trying to get through the gig’ face.”) The show concluded rather perfunctorily with a long blues coda, with Otis seemingly avoiding the keyboardist’s backward glances at the drummer. He finished with a flourish, bowed graciously, and then slipped offstage. “He owes us ‘Strawberry Letter 23,’” I muttered ungraciously. “They’re probably going to fire the drummer first,” C. replied.
Minutes later, Otis and the band re-emerged to the crowd chanting, “Shuggie! Shuggie!” Everyone, that is, except the drummer, who was replaced by another man who looked a lot like Otis. “Oh my God, they totally fired the drummer!” I exclaimed. Without a word, the band launched into “Strawberry Letter 23,” and suddenly everything fell into place. The new drummer killed it, and all tension melted away in the soaring buildup to the fluttering, other-worldly duet between Otis and the other guitarist at the end of the song. Other mysteries were soon cleared up, too. Otis’s lineup turned out to be a family affair: his son Eric was on supporting guitar, and the hot-headed keyboardist Russ Stewart was a cousin. The new drummer Nick was Otis’s brother—he was actually supposed to be the original drummer, but for some reason couldn’t make it to the show until the encore. (The beleaguered replacement was Mike Reed, director of the Pitchfork Music Festival, who’d been called in last minute to fill in for Nick. In hindsight, therefore, the keyboardist’s dismissive, irate treatment of Reed seemed overblown and undeserved.)
So is Shuggie Otis back for good? It’s hard to say, of course, given the idiosyncratic track record of his entire career. But even with the strange tensions of Tuesday night’s show, I know that every moment the elusive Otis shares with us—writing, recording, performing—is a rare gift that we can’t afford to take for granted.
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Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that the original drummer was Lucky Otis, Shuggie Otis’s son.