Shuggie Otis: The Music Keeps Calling Him Back
“I look back now,” says Shuggie Otis, “and I think, ‘Wow. I must have a lot of patience!’” The multi-instrumentalist is reflecting on the curious arc of his career so far: his fame began in earnest when he was a young teen, continued into his early twenties, and ended abruptly after the relative commercial failure of his 1974 LP Inspiration Information (now regarded as a classic) when he was dropped by his record label. Otis largely disappeared from public sight after that, and didn’t resurface for almost forty years. These days, he’s working on a new studio album and engaging in an ambitious touring schedule, which brings him back to Atlanta’s Terminal West on August 3rd.
Otis was born in Los Angeles, the son of famed bandleader and R&B legend Johnny Otis. The senior Otis (born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes) is commonly referred to as the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues.” Of Greek heritage, Johnny lived among – and lived as – an African American. He co-wrote “Hound Dog” and was an influential part of the American music scene, especially in the 1940s and 1950s.
Son Johnny Alexander Veliotes, Jr. (his mother nicknamed him Shuggie, and the sobriquet stuck) and his brother Nicholas both picked up their father’s musical interest and prowess. A natural talent, Shuggie had taught himself guitar, and was gigging with his father’s band by the age of 12. By 1969 he was featured on an album of his father’s called Cold Shot, and another disc, the X-rated Snatch and the Poontangs. A live album, 1970’s Johnny Otis Show Live at Monterey! also featured Shuggie’s impressive guitar work. “Working with Dad was mostly a good time; it was fun,” says Shuggie. “He was a strict kind of a bandleader, but he was also a fun guy. Everybody liked him. Even if some kind of argument popped up, [the other person] would always come back to him.”
Around that time the now-fifteen year old was “discovered” by Al Kooper and showcased on Kooper Session: Al Kooper Introduces Shuggie Otis; B.B. King called Shuggie his “favorite new guitarist” and Shuggie played bass guitar on Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats cut “Peaches en Regalia.” Shuggie’s first true solo album, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, was released in 1970. While the superb “psychedelic soul” album featured many of the elder Otis’ bandmates (Wilton Felder, Stix Hooper, Al McKibbon), it was also notable for Shuggie’s multi-instrumental prowess on guitar, piano, harpsichord and celesta.
Freedom Flight followed in 1971, with Shuggie taking a greater role in the album’s development. Playing even more instruments and composing most of the songs, Shuggie penned the classic “Strawberry Letter #23,” which would reach #1 on the 1977 soul charts in a cover version by The Brothers Johnson.
But it would be three more years before Shuggie delivered Freedom Flight’s followup to his record label. The simmering Inspiration Information was very different from Shuggie’s earlier work. Now just 21, Otis had recorded the album almost completely on his own (save for session players on strings and horns). The muted, intimate-sounding Inspiration Information featured extensive use of the Rhythm King, an early electronic drum machine, in place of “real” percussion. Well ahead of its time – and not, thought the execs at Epic Records, delivered on time – the album was poorly promoted, and was a commercial disappointment. The label summarily dropped Otis, and the 21-year-old was now without a record deal. To the public at large, it was as if Shuggie Otis had vanished.
Rumors swirled around the seeming disappearance of such a bright talent. Was he hard to work with? Was he dealing with any manner of personal issues? Nobody seemed to know for sure, and while some began to forget about him, those who appreciated his work kept hoping that he’d return one day. Shuggie recalls that period. “People [had] said, ‘Everybody loves him. He’s gonna be a big star!’ And the next thing I knew, nobody wanted to have anything to do with me. That was kind of strange…not strange; it was disillusioning. It was a disappointment.”
Meanwhile, his songs were sampled by OutKast, Beyoncé, J Dilla, Digable Planets, Kanye West and others. But none of those people, it seemed, were in a position to offer Shuggie that elusive record deal.
Shuggie Otis continued to record and perform, all as he searched without success for a new recording contract. A 2013 Sony Music collection of the best of his material from the post-Inspiration Information era was compiled and released as Wings of Love, packaged with a reissue of the ’74 album.
That reissue sparked renewed interest in Otis’ music, and to promote the 2013 reissue/compilation, Shuggie Otis put together a band and toured, playing for audiences he hadn’t faced in years. A contract with Cleopatra Records followed, and the 2014 Live in Willamsburg disc documented the high-energy stage show, a set list that contained old favorites and newer material.
At the start of the current leg of what’s billed as The Never Ending World Tour, I spoke with Shuggie Otis about the past, the present, and the future.
You sent demo tapes to many labels, but nothing happened for years, until the reissue of Inspiration Information with the added Wings of Love material. That you finally got the notice you deserve seems to be more than luck. Why do you think you’re getting noticed now after being ignored for so many years? What’s special about now?
I don’t know. I can’t really answer what’s special about it, but life continues to be special to me. I don’t know how to describe it, but I’m very inspired to play music right now. Just like I was in my late teens and early twenties. I’m 61 now. There’s something special about having that kind of enthusiasm, I think. For me, it’s a very good time now. And it hasn’t always been that smooth. Things are much brighter now. I can’t say that it’s anything that I have done; I just feel like I am in the right place at the right time.
If I had to pick one word to describe the album Inspiration Information to someone who had never heard it, I’d pick the word “quiet.” The album seems like the opposite of the idea of shouting to get someone’s attention. The music seems, sometimes, to almost whisper to get people to be quiet and listen.
Yes, it was quiet; I agree. But it wasn’t an approach that I took purposely for that effect. It was just the way I felt. I wanted the music not to be so loud, trying to get [the listener’s] attention, trying to how express how good [I am]. I wasn’t thinking about being “out front” at that time. I feel more comfortable with that idea now. It’s kind of odd, but that’s the way it is. I’m more out front now with the guitar, so the [new] music – onstage these days – is almost the opposite of Inspiration Information.
Now I’m working on a bunch of things, including an album for Cleopatra Records. It’s coming along. I don’t know how to describe the music, but I’m very excited about it. It should be coming out later this year, for sure.
One of the great things about your music is that one can’t really pin it down and call it psychedelic soul, or funk, or rock, or blues.
Yeah. I like so many different kinds of music; I don’t feel like I need to stop at one style and stay there. I’m pretty free with that idea. I’ve never had to adjust or conform; I’ve had that freedom since I was a kid with the record labels. Whatever happens musically, happens. Music gets to be a problem when you try to express it in words. But I hope that you like mine. It’ll be a different concept; I can say that much.
Since you are proficient on so many instruments, when you write songs, do you have specific things in mind with regard to, say, what the drums should do, what the keyboards should sound like and play, and so on?
I usually have an idea of what the [parts] will do that will go along with the song. On Inspiration Information I played all the instruments, and I continue to record that way. But I am going to incorporate my band into the new recordings, too. Because the band has a special sound to it, and I want to get back into playing with live musicians. I had been doing sessions alone for so many years; it feels so good now to play with a band these days. And I’ve got a band where I can feature myself on guitar in a different way; there’s more guitar featured now than before. And I’m very happy about that.
You’re playing live onstage more now than you have at any other time in your career. What do you like most about performing, and is there anything about it you don’t enjoy?
I like performing. There isn’t anything I don’t like about performing! I know that probably seems funny to people that know I’ve been away from the limelight for so long. And that wasn’t always my choosing. I had a different mindset. My frame of mine wasn’t centered so much about… I had a sort of ego trip. Because I couldn’t get a record deal, I was thinking more about record deals, vast money, and being treated like a star. And that’s negative, when you think about it. When it comes to music, you shouldn’t have those kinds of problems going on in your head. But I did.
And now I don’t. I don’t think about music as far as making money anymore. When I write a song, it’s just stuff from the heart. Way more than it ever was before, it’s important for the song to mean something to me. For instance, I’ve written some songs recently that I thought were good songs after I recorded them. But then I would say, “Okay, I’m not using it no more. I don’t even want to hear it.” In fact I would put almost a whole album down. I’ve done that maybe three times with the album I’m working on now.
I’m sharing something funny with you here. I wanted to know if putting the songs out would affect me in a bad way after people started listening to them. It’s a paranoia, and it’s really unnecessary. I would think, “Well, with this song here, it might sound…they might think…” But the songs kept calling me back. A song would be really good, and I’d think about it, and realize that I have to face whatever it is that’s bothering me about this song. It might be something personal. It’s not necessarily that the song has anything to do with real life, but what the song is saying. I guess when the album comes out, you’ll know more about what I’m talking about. I’m happy with the songs now.
I was playing the guitar for hours last night, coming up with new ideas; all kinds of stuff. At one point I went and listened to some of the stuff I’m working on. All of the ones that I didn’t want to be on the album are going to be on there after all! I came back around and realized, “These songs sound like my fans would like them.” But it’s not just my fans I’m thinking about. The songs have to please me first. And that’s what the problem was before: “I don’t want to use that song; it bothers me personally.” I had to detach myself and say, “Wait a minute; forget that. Is the song any good? Do you think somebody else might like it? Forget what it’s saying, because not everybody cares that much about what [lyrics] you’re writing!” If the music’s good, you have to ask yourself, “Will this work? Do you want to put this out?” And I thought it was kind of funny how many times I’d keep shelving these songs. But now, okay, they’re coming out.
Where does your music come from? Do you sit down and say, “Okay, time to write a song,” or does it happen some other way?
I can’t do that too well. I can, but I don’t ever accept what comes that way. Because I know it won’t come out the way I’d like. I mean, it has to come to me. Believe it: I’ve come up with ideas that I thought were great – just recently – and then a few weeks go by, and then, “No, that’s one’s going away forever. And that one, too. And that one.” But some of them call you back. And once they come to me, then I’ll stay with them for hours. And days. Weeks, however long it takes.
And I’m trying to step on it now, because I don’t want to hold up the record company and just take my time. That’s not the [goal] at all. What I’m trying to do is work with a quick pace. When I’m in the studio, I pretty much go at it without taking a break. And I’m very, very happy to get into a studio again. Because I had been working out of my home studio. And that’s great, but to get back into a real studio is something extra special for me. That’s something I haven’t done in, I don’t know how many years.
It’s a very special time for me. And I’m just praying that everything goes right. We’re all really excited. I have a band of great musicians, really great guys. We’re happy to be playing together, and to be getting such a great reaction. And I’m not going to let anything get in the way of this. If I can help it, we’re going to just keep on playing. Keep on playing, and don’t think too much about the business. Because focusing more on the business surely does hurt the music.
Before, I had that wrong mindset; I was thinking about, “Oh, how the record companies are treating me bad!” And I couldn’t get past that anger. Now, I think to myself, “It was a natural reaction; you’re a human being.” Because for years I felt for the most part that I wasn’t wanted in the business. And perhaps that was the truth. But you can take something like that and stretch it into a big, crazy notion. It shouldn’t have to run your whole life, but it can affect a person.
Hopefully there’s no ego trips any more. I’m not saying that I’m all the way there, that I’m perfect. Every day can be a challenge. Maybe every day is a challenge. For me, I see something happening that’s so good. So I don’t let those things bother me.
A lot of highly regarded musicians have named you as an inspiration. David Byrne was instrumental in the first  CD reissue of Inspiration Information. Lenny Kravitz has said great things about your music. And I hear your influence in some of Prince’s music. Those are just several examples. What do you think about the fact that your body of work – the music you’ve made – has been influential on other artists?
I’m flattered. It’s beyond me what has happened with my music. It’s amazing that my music has touched stars and other artists. It’s even been used in TV commercials. “Strawberry Letter #23,” for example. It’s been sampled so many times, too. The idea has been used in a lot of things, too: they change the notes around, but you still get the idea. And I’m just amazed that I had anything to do with something so big. Because that song is way, way, way bigger than I’ll ever be. When you have a hit song, it’s always gonna be bigger than the person who wrote it. No matter how big the star is, if somebody’s going to be humming that tune during the day, they’re not even thinking about the star.
I wrote the song, and I take credit for that, but I don’t take full credit. Because I feel that I’m channeling music. Apparently, I’m a medium; I realize this more as I get older. I feel like music is something that’s coming through me, and sometimes it’s really quite interesting as it’s happening. When that happens to you as a writer, you’re usually by yourself. And you’re communicating with someone, because – with the respect that you’re writing words, you’re saying them out loud. And so at times you’re talking to what seems to be another individual. One or more. You can’t see them, but there’s usually that one spirit that you’re communicating with.
I don’t know what the name of all that is. But music has got to be the biggest healing force in the universe; one of my musicians was telling me that Jimi Hendrix used to say that. I said, “Yeah, I remember that album that Albert Ayler put out, Music is the Healing Force of the Universe .” I’ve always liked that title. And I realized, yes it is! Not only is it a healing force, it is the biggest healing force. And I think a lot of people agree with me.
I love music so much. And to be a part of it, now, it’s something like a new high to me. First of all, you’ve got to get a little success to feel that way. You have to have been, I say, blessed with a chance to feel that feeling where you’re not jealous. Because jealousy has to go away – all away – in order to be able to write and play music well. You can’t think about anything but the music. So lately I’ve been playing more music than I ever had before. And it seems to be – it doesn’t seem to be, it is – very therapeutic for me.
And I hope that I can bring that onstage, and be therapeutic for someone who needs it. I don’t feel that I’m going to be some big healer, I just want to go there and have a good time like everybody else. I don’t want to be all serious about Shuggie Otis or his music; I just want to be a part of the crowd.
I always wanted to be separate from the crowd, before. That was a problem. I didn’t know how to relax around people. Now it seems to be much easier. I mean, I did; there is still this big misconception of me. When you’re out for so long, there’s this idea, “Oh, Shuggie? He’s shy. He’s doesn’t like people. He’s afraid. He’s paranoid.” Some of those things were true. But now, for some reason – and like I say, I don’t know why – I’ve chosen to stay alive for another day. I hope!
I’m elated these days, and I don’t feel the need to ever stop being that way. As long as I stay in touch with the music, I don’t think I’m exaggerating at all: music is a natural high. It gets people to laughing and dancing and all kinds of stuff. And they get their minds off of everything that’s bothering them. And if there’s nothing bothering them, then they just keep having a good time.
Life can be worrisome sometimes; I understand that. And I’m trying to relate to people in a much different way. I know that I can, now. Whatever conception I had of myself before, it’s different now. The things that used to bother me, it seems like I’ve gotten over those things. The main thing is to stay alive so I can play music. And music keeps me alive. Music is what I do.
I used to think, “Oh I should have done this or that before.” But it’s a mistake to think about the past. You’ve got to just keep going.
Talking to you now, it really seems that now is your time…
I feel the same way. It’s my time, whatever happens. It’s my time to share the music, if nothing else.
Photo by Bill Kopp.