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On a Thursday night the week before last, Shuggie Otis was at Highline Ballroom in New York City, headlining a preview for SummerStage (a free outdoor concert series). The diverse crowd consisted of hip-hop heads, wide-eyed indie rock fans, older blues fans, music biz cognoscenti, and everyone in between, all curious to see how Shuggie would sound after all this time. It had, after all, been 38 years since the 1974 release of Otis’ third and latest album, Inspiration Information. Since then, Shuggie kept a low public profile for decades, sporadically writing and recording his own music, and doing sessions and gigs with for his famous father. Still, his modest output kept bubbling up as samples in songs by acts from the Fat Boys to Outkast and Beyoncé—not to mention covers by the likes of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. But once the thumping eight-bar intro of ostinato bass and shifting chords from Inspiration Information‘s title track hit the Highline crowd’s senses, all was well and good.
Shuggie’s story has all the trappings of a “whatever happened to” tale. The prodigious progeny of R&B pioneer Johnny Otis (singer, multi-instrumentalist, talent scout, A&R man, producer, radio and television host), Shuggie grew up at the feet of musical legends. He recorded his first solo album, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, at 16 (following a “Super Session” album cut with Al Kooper at age 15). For his sophomore LP Freedom Flight, he penned the psych-funk nugget “Strawberry Letter 23” (which exploded into the national consciousness six years later when the Brothers Johnson turned it into a million-seller). At just 21, Shuggie realized his own autonomous musical vision with Inspiration Information. Just as things were starting to go well for him, Epic Records unceremoniously and simultaneously dumped both Shuggie and his dad from the label. Shuggie, preferring to be his own bandleader, turned down invitations to be a sideman for some of the biggest pop acts out there.
Without a record deal, he drifted from the spotlight, but his music continued to draw devotees who found something unique in Shuggie’s blending of funk, pop, blues, jazz, and electronic music into a vibrant personal world. Blues and soul connoisseurs shared tapes of his out-of print LPs, and pop and hip-hop producers began sampling the distinctive melodies and textures of his tunes. His last album was officially anointed “hip” via a 2001 reissue on David Byrne‘s Luaka Bop label, with new artwork and hyperbolic myth-fanning liner notes.
In April, Sony/Legacy will re-reissue Inspiration Information with bonus tracks from the original sessions, along with Wings of Love, a disc of previously unreleased music recorded between 1974 and 1990 (plus one live track from 2000). Now Shuggie finally has the opportunity to make up for lost time with an international tour booked, a hot new band, and plans to write and record brand new material. I caught up with the artist in advance of his New York City showcase to shoot some portraits and talk about where he’s been, and where he’s going.
Mother Jones: I read somewhere that you started in music really early—like at age two!
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