The Freedom Flight of Shuggie Otis

shuggie sq“I hit the stage at 12 and played gigs. That’s when I started to wear dark glasses and paint on the mustache.”

 

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Sometime in the magic days of early 1960s Los Angeles, the sounds of sweet soul and rhythm and blues were spilling into the streets, attracting revelers and groove aficionados of all colors and stripes. One of those artists plying his trade was the great bandleader and composer, Johnny Otis. Otis was well known to the L.A. crowd, having appeared on local television with his band, written several hit songs in the ’50s, and discovered soon-to-be-icons like Jackie Wilson and Etta James.

If you were one of those lucky clubbers in the blissed-out chaos of twirling skirts and cigarette haze, you no doubt would have picked up on the pretty sounds coming from Mr. Otis’s new guitarist. So enamored with his sound, no one seemed to notice the gentleman’s unusually short stature or his painted-on mustache. A closer examination would have revealed this young man to be the 12-year-old son of Johnny Otis. His name was Shuggie Otis, and those halcyon years would continue to hold a special place in his heart for the rest of his life.

I had the opportunity to speak with Shuggie Otis during a break in rehearsals for a tour that kicks off on July 15in Napa, California. “That first gig was memorable,” he remembers. “The bass player didn’t show up, so I played bass. It was fun, and I’ll never forget it. The first song we played was ‘Respect’ by Aretha Franklin. It was just a very exciting time.” Continuing to reminisce, he says, “We played in a club called Santa Ana Clubhouse on the weekends. Then after that gig was done, we went over to Montebello and played the Blue Bunny, which was an after-hours club. We even played the Monterrey Jazz Festival a couple of times.”

Because Otis was always focusing his energy on his musicianship, and never particularly concerning himself with being a celebrity, the truth and lies tended to mingle easily, making it a task to untangle myth from history. For example: Did he actually start playing guitar at the age of two, as it states on Wikipedia, the last bastion of all truth and knowledge? Laughing, he says, “No way, no way. I started playing at 11 years old. I hit the stage at 12 and played gigs. That’s when I started to wear dark glasses and paint on the mustache, so I could get into the club.”

On his 1970 debut, Here Comes Shuggie Otis (Epic Records), there is a spoken-word track on which Otis describes that era. “There’s a part where I talk about playing when I was younger, and I mention that I painted a mustache on. My dad wrote that, actually,” he says with a smile in his voice. “I basically read it off a piece of paper, and I was hoping it didn’t come across like that. It was pretty much the truth, though.”

Just like his father ran the gamut from swing music to rhythm and blues, the younger Otis blazed his own trail, mixing soul music and acid jazz to form a musical vocabulary all his own. Though his follow-up albums, including 1971’s Freedom Flight and Inspiration Information from 1974, are now considered classics, they didn’t make a whole lot of noise when they were released. Did he ever feel like his music was ahead of its time? “I never thought it was ahead of its time, but I never knew it was going to be accepted like it is now,” he explains. “Years ago, I thought they might be re-released. But I had no idea they would get the kind of welcome and response they get now.”

Despite the fact that the albums never became blockbusters back in the day, the Brothers Johnson recorded a version of the Freedom Flight track “Strawberry Letter 23,” and the song shot to number one on the Soul singles charts. Otis quickly gained a reputation for never rushing his projects, and famously turned down a chance to be a touring member with some group of English guys called the Rolling Stones. When I mention that it seemed like a brave move, his reasoning behind turning down the offer makes perfect sense: “You know, I was a big fan of the Rolling Stones as much as I liked other bands. I also got offers from Spirit, Blood Sweat and Tears, and David Bowie.” He said no to all of these artists? “Pretty much, I just said no, as soon as I heard about it; I didn’t want to be in anybody’s group. Plus, I was working on an album at the time, and just wanted to do my own music. And so, when that was over with I was kind of, I don’t know how to say it—I guess it was a brave thing to do. I didn’t need the money. Maybe if I was starving, I would have joined one of those groups. I was determined to stay with my own music,” he says matter-of-factly. “That was the entire reason.”

After Inspiration Information hit the shelves, Otis’s recording schedule slowed down, and the session work picked back up, as he was working with everyone from Frank Zappa (he played bass on “Peaches en Regalia”) to Bobby “Blue” Bland. It wasn’t until later that artists like Prince began to drop his name in interviews that the tide began to turn. “A guy who had a record company called Red Hot came to see me play. He bought a bootleg of one of my records, and brought it to another record company. He took the album up to them, and they liked it. It was really a lucky thing for me.” The record company he mentions happened to be Luaka Bop, and was owned by none other than Talking Heads mastermind David Byrne. In 2001, Luaka Bop reissued Inspiration Information, with four tracks from Freedom Flight, to critical acclaim and the open arms of a new generation.

On October 14 of last year, Otis released his first live album, Live in Williamsburg, on Cleopatra records. The record chronicles the songs that led to his recent career renaissance, and continues the Otis legacy by featuring his sons Eric on guitar and Nick on drums. The talk turns to new music, and what he says next will truly be music to the ears of Shuggie-ites everywhere. “I’m working on a new album now for Cleopatra records, and it should be out this year. Before Christmas—way before it, actually. That’s what I’m planning to do” Though he’ll be busy on tour, that doesn’t appear to be anything that will stop him from releasing his first new music in decades. “I’ll be coming on and off the road, and going into the studio. I have a home studio where I’ve done some tracks, then go into another studio to put everything together.”

After all the artists that cite him as influence, and all of the times his tracks have been sampled by everyone from Outkast to Beyoncé, is he ever surprised at the impact his music has had? “No,” he says. “It doesn’t surprise me, only because I have been out there for such a long time. Often times, it’s very flattering. Many people get ideas or inspiration from other people, and I’m no different,” he humbly states. “I get ideas from other people, too. That’s just the way it is with music. What I’m saying is, I’m not the one who invented this stuff.” | Jim Ousley

You can see Shuggie Otis at City Winery in Chicago on Friday, July 17, at 10:30 p.m. VIP tickets are $38, premier seats $34, and reserved seats $24. Visit http://www.citywinery.com/chicago/shuggie-otis-7-17.html for more information.

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