Shuggie Otis | Inspiration Information/Wings of Love (Epic/Legacy)

cd shuggie-otisFrom the first bar of the opening title track, you’re in the park early in the summer, daydreaming with your lover and looking for shapes in the clouds.

 

Sometimes, the music gods sprinkle a little extra stardust on those very special artists whose unique gifts make an indelible impact on the rest of the world. The son of the late great Johnnie Otis, Shuggie Otis was a guitar prodigy who joined his pop’s band at the unbelievably young age of 12. After decorating the smoky air of Los Angeles clubs with his exquisitely tasteful fretwork, he went on to play with artists ranging from Etta James and Bobby “Blue” Bland to Frank Zappa. Billy Preston famously asked him to join the Stones on behalf of Mick and Keith, but truthfully, he was too free spirited and creatively explosive to do anything other than what his heart desired. In 1969, he released his first solo album, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, and followed it up with 1971’s Freedom Flight (which featured the hit “Strawberry Letter 23), and finally the 1974 psychedelic-acid-jazz-funk of Inspiration Information.

Though the significance of these albums may have been lost on the masses, Otis’s influence can clearly be heard in the music of Prince, Lenny Kravitz, and Michael Jackson. When samples of his classic grooves started being dropped into tunes, and his name began to pop up in interviews with the aforementioned artists, interest in his work began to percolate in the intervening years. In response to this, David Byrne’s Luaka Bop Records label re-released Inspiration Information along with four tracks from Freedom Flight in 2001. Rumors kept swirling among fans that Otis had a treasure trove of new and unreleased music in the vaults; yet no release date was ever set.

For all of the long-timers and past-decade devotees, your prayers have finally been answered. Sony Music Entertainment has set an April 16, 2013, release date for the double-disc Inspiration Information and Wings of Love. While the former has the entire album plus four previously unreleased bonus tracks, it is the second disc that is truly the reason to celebrate. Wings of Love is a collection of songs Otis recorded between 1975 and 2000, basically amounting to an entire new album from a man who many thought would never release any of these amazing songs. But what makes these albums inspire such immense loyalty and devotion from fans? Please allow me to break it down for you.

Inspiration Information is a stereophonic time machine, transporting you to an era when music wasn’t artificially shaped by auto-tuning, ProTools fixing, and electronic primping. The music came from the mouths, fingers, and hearts of musicians who honed their craft in crammed-to-the-max basement bars and bouncing downtown clubs. From the first bar of the opening title track, you’re in the park early in the summer, daydreaming with your lover and looking for shapes in the clouds. It’s a gentle proclamation that not only are you free to leave your troubles behind, you aren’t even going to remember them by the time you get to track two. From the perfectly constructed and easygoin’ grooves of Sparkle City, to the block party beats of the instrumental Not Available, the listener is sustained by Otis’s always-joyous voice and untouchable rhythm playing. Otis somehow manages to successfully mix psychedelica and high-concept romantic soul on “Aht Uh Mi Hed, and stirs up some dreamy melancholia on the beautiful and timeless “Happy House.

If Inspiration Information is all about the all-too-fleeting days of summer, Wings of Love tells you all about what Shuggie Otis is up to at night. A little sweatier, a little sexier, Wings of Love is a bedroom funk masterpiece. Its packaging suggests that it is a companion piece to Inspiration Information, and while it certainly succeeds at this, it more than stands on its own merits.

Sliding down the rain-slicked streets of Any City, USA, on a fat, Stax-style groove, the song “Special” lets us know that Otis is our perfect guide to the nighttime world. Even when we eavesdrop on him sweet-talking the ladies on “Give Me Something Good,” he can’t help but move the conversation to the dance floor to raise the stakes. “Walking Down the Country” is probably the most obvious link to Inspriation Information, with a sweet melody and lyrics that are a testament to his under-valued storytelling prowess.

The title track is the best song that Journey never wrote, and contains a guitar hook that even Neal Schon would be more than proud to call his own. Even if soul or rhythm and blues isn’t your thing, “Give Me a Chance” would be the most likely candidate to change the heart of even the most hardened cynic. It’s a redemptive and exhilarating jam, full of hooks and heavy on the synths, and absolutely begging to be thumped through a massive sound system.

Perhaps my favorite track on the album is a live one from 2000, recorded at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach, California. “Black Belt Sheriff” features Otis stripped down, just the man and his acoustic, and the effect is as mesmerizing as it is fascinatingly intimate. Punctuated with smooth slide guitar, the song emerges as the unlikely gem of the album.

Packaged with liner notes that outline Otis’s history, as well as interview text, you couldn’t ask for a better introduction. If you’re in that very particular demographic who has been waiting a long time for this, I’m pleased to report that it was all worth the wait. The reclusive artist is hitting the road for what he is calling “The Shuggie Otis Rite Tour,” and he’ll be coming back to the States in April. I’m looking forward to seeing him live, and when you gift your ears with this double-disc set, I promise you’ll be doing the same. | Jim Ousley

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