“Inspiration Information,” by Shuggie Otis, tripped through funk, soul, lounge and jazz music with a psychedelic sense of wonder. It’s a genteel record with elegant melodies, gracious guitar leads and a mysterious core that makes you wonder just who created this gorgeous thing.
Hardly anyone got to know who did because the album bombed when it came out in 1974, detonating Otis’ career with it.
In the years since, critics have compared the disc to the breakthroughs of the most world’s progressive black artists, from Sly Stone’s “There’s a Riot Going On” to Love’s “Forever Changes” to Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions.”
That’s kinda racist, if you think about it. There’s no reason to compare Otis’ work only to other African-American artists. “Inspiration” bridges styles as diverse as Burt Bacharach’s, in the elegance of its tunes, and Pink Floyd’s, in its feel for abstraction.
Because Otis went MIA just after the disc’s release, rumors circulated that the guitar-playing prodigy had, for some reason, retired at the high unlikely age of 31.
“That’s totally false,” says Otis, now 59. “I tried to get a record deal every week for 40 years. Every label you could think of said no.”
Otis also kept recording and writing songs in that period — revelatory ones, in fact. This week, the world will finally get to hear them on a set called “Wings of Love.” It’s been bundled with a rerelease of the original “Inspiration Information” disc, fleshed out by four previous unheard tracks from the period.
Otis’ surprise resurrection began last January when Sony Records — the parent company of Epic, the label that dropped him — finally hipped to the brilliance of his original sound. “They called me, and right away I knew I wanted to do it,” he says.
The L.A.-based Otis also returned to national touring this year. In January, he played a tease date here at the Highline. This week he’ll hit B.B. King’s Thursday and Saturday, with a third date sandwiched in between Friday at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
This isn’t the first rerelease for “Inspiration.” Twelve years ago, David Byrne’s company Luaka Bop, issued it, spreading its legend in the press, even if didn’t click with the public. Otis didn’t give any of his newer music to the label at the time due to a falling out with executives there. “They got on my nerves,” he says.
Otis also left a tour organized to support the record before its end. “I’m not proud to say that happened,” he says. “But it was an odd time for me. I had to get a band together without seeing their faces. We never got to rehearse and that made it horrible.”
Because of situations like that, some have assumed that Otis is hard to work with. “I never caused a problem for anybody in the music industry,” he asserts. “In my personal life, maybe…”
Otis also has a reputation for being shy. That trait had a beneficial effect on the “Inspiration” CD, giving it an otherwordly quality that makes the songs highly personal and also draws you in.
The material on “Wings of Love” — written and recorded between 1975 and 2000 – has a bit more aggression. “I grew older and came out of my shell,” he says.
The disc also boasts more of Otis’ uncommonly fluid guitar work. It’s an approach skilled enough to to have spurred the Rolling Stones to ask him about joining back in 1975. Otis also had offers from Blood Sweat & Tears and Spirit to sign on but he didn’t want to subsume his own work for a sideman job. In the meantime, Otis enjoyed his greatest commercial success over the years as either a writer (of the Top 5 hit “Strawberry Letter #23” for The Brothers Johnson) or for sampling of his sound, by stars from Beyoncé (on “Be With You”) to OutKast (in “Ms. Jackson”).
The sound Otis created takes a novel approach to funk, making it shimmer instead of stomp. His music also has an uncommon sophistication, as well as a wealth of influences. “Deep down, the blues is at the bottom,” Otis says. “But I love R&B, rock, jazz and country and classical music, too.”
Otis says he has written a lot of new material for an album he hopes to record later this year. He also plans to keep touring. In the meantime, Otis says he wants fans to know he wasn’t suffering all these years. “I don’t have any regrets or chips on my shoulder,” he says. “It just wasn’t my time. When your time comes, you just make the most of it.”
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