Written By: Brendan Canning
Shuggie Otis made his first record at the age of 15, but had already been playing with his father, the great Johnny Otis, since he was 12. Before he was 20, he recorded with Frank Zappa and in 1970, B.B. King said: “Shuggie Otis is my favourite new guitar player.” His 1974 album Inspiration Information is cult classic that has been lauded by Prince and Lenny Kravitz. Now, Inspiration Information and a second bonus album of never-released material, Wings of Love, have been reissued. Otis was recently in town with his band to promote both albums and re-introduce himself to Toronto for the first time. I was lucky enough to have a few words with Otis before the show.
When Inspiration Information was first reissued, a lot of the music heads were really excited, but there were no tours, no nothing.
I dropped out. I had some personal things. My wife passed away in 2009, right after that album came out and it tore me up. I just kept hitting the bottle.
Even when Jackie Brown came out, with Strawberry Letter 23, I wasn’t aware of The Brothers Johnson version.
You never heard it before Jackie Brown? That was a big hit in ’77.
I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto, so a song like that didn’t quite … I got some of the disco songs, songs like Car Wash, but the Brothers Johnson didn’t make it that far.
It didn’t make it up there, huh?
Not to to the suburbs of Toronto, but, I mean, I was seven.
It was a pretty big hit. It was in Pulp Fiction, too.
I have a band that tours around and plays the circuit, but as a DJ, some of those songs get me out of tight spots.
What I don’t get is why you weren’t touring more after Inspiration Information was first released?
I got dropped from my label. My father got dropped then I got dropped and 30 years later, all the blues groups got dropped. It was after the president got fired, Clive Davis.
Was Clive Davis the guy who signed you?
He was president at the time, he OK’d it.
When you were first releasing Inspiration Information, were Sly and the Family Stone your contemporaries, or Curtis Mayfield?
Columbia Records had a studio and I’d see Sly there. I met Randy Williams one night; Donny Mathis. I saw Paul Revere & the Raiders, all kinds of groups, but we didn’t hang out. I was interested in my own thing.
Would you ever sit in on jazz recordings?
I played with my father-in-law, Gerald Wilson. He wrote for Count Basie and Duke Ellington and he even lived with Basie for a year.
In the 80s, were you interested in stuff coming out, things like Chaka Khan, Prince or Shalamar?
I used to listen to everything on the radio. In the ’70s and ’80s, it was still good, the Top 40, but in the ’90s, zoom another direction. But I was already kicked out so it didn’t matter.
Kicked out of the business?
Somebody must have blackballed me. That’s how I feel.
That’s how you felt?
I feel that way about it to this day. They just said, “Stay away from him.” Some power way bigger than I know said: “Keep him out.”
Were you trying to get a record deal?
But now your son’s on the road and you’ve got your brother on drums, you’ve got a nice little family thing going.
When they joined, it started to gel. I’m happy with the band. It’s complete … for the moment.
Does it feel like, with this music coming out, that it’s some just reward?
I feel like I’m redeemed.
You’re a survivor. You could’ve said, “I’m over this.”
Not a year went by without me sending something to a few labels, but it got to where I was laid back about it — I got day jobs. I didn’t want to do the chitlin’ circuit all over again. I’d come out of Columbia Records when I was 15. I was spoiled, I guess.
But then people wanted Strawberry Letter.
You know how it is, I didn’t want to play it, but finally I said: “I guess I better play it.”
You wrote music that people want to hear.
I’m lucky to be able to come back out. It’s all about luck, any way.
Still, you better have some good tunes.
There’s people with good tunes that don’t make it. You have to be at the right place at the right time, no matter how talented you are.
In celebration of Shuggie Otis, we have a new Shuggie Otis Tour Sweater and T-Shirt! Get Yours Today!
Tour 2013 Sweater
Sale Price: $39.99
Tour 2013 T-Shirt
Sale Price: $20