It’s an unfortunate trick of the life of a musician that a single cover version can supercede its original author’s career. One job of the reissue is to hopefully right such wrongs. Such has been the fate of Shuggie Otis, who, at the time of writing, has an All Music Guide entry with the album art of the band who took “Strawberry Letter 23” to #5 on the 1977 pop charts featured before any image of Otis himself. What had become a minor cult around Otis’ short-but-overlooked career surfaced for the first time a quarter-century later. The 2001 Luaka Bop reissue of Otis’ 1974 masterwork Inspiration Information was the first time many heard the original version of “Strawberry”, but that release managed to muddy Otis’ discography, as well. “Strawberry” was originally included on Otis’ previous album, 1971’s Freedom Flight, though it and four other Freedom songs were tacked onto the end of Inspiration. Their provenance was noted as such, but new Otis converts could be forgiven for slotting “Strawberry” as a late-album Inspiration track.
Those extra tracks did no favors to Inspiration, which works incredibly well as its own statement, without the need for bonus material. Originally, it was to be the coming-out party for a tremendous new talent, though one who was no stranger to the music business. A blues guitar prodigy who’d been playing with his father (pioneering R&B bandleader Johnny Otis) since he was 11, Otis played on Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats when he was 16, and released an album with blues-rock gadabout Al Kooper before he was 20. Though he stayed out of the recording process, Johnny Otis served as the executive producer for his son’s work, and he convinced Columbia to build Shuggie a home studio to record Inspiration, which took the better part of three years. Upon release in October 1974, Inspiration certainly sounded like the work of an isolated L.A. savant. Smooth, organ-driven California funk, quasi-new age psychedelia, loungey jazz instrumentals, string interludes– all propelled by the same kind of analog drum machine that had piqued Ralf & Florian’s interest at the same time.
Inspiration instantly earned comparisons to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, and reportedly made Sly Stone’s jaw drop upon hearing it. The LP’s title track– every bit as good as “Strawberry”– was issued to radio, though it only reached #56 on the R&B chart. The album failed to live up to Columbia’s expectations, such as they were, and Otis was unceremoniously dropped from the label after its release. In August 1977, as the Brothers Johnson version of “Strawberry” was emanating from car stereos and DJ booths, no one had heard a peep from Otis for more than two years. He wouldn’t return to public life for nearly 40 more.
Reissues are weird things, particularly for albums that don’t instantly announce themselves along clear genre lines, and especially for artists who don’t show any interest in adding to the conversations themselves. Which is why Epic/Legacy’s 2xCD reissue is the definitive version. On the first CD, Inspiration is included as its own entity, and appended with four extra tracks from those sessions– solid B-sides, but impossible to imagine on the original album. The second CD, Wings of Love, is the collection’s real revelation, comprising 14 tracks that Otis recorded between 1975 and 2000. Wings reveals that while Otis was reclusive, he was far from idle. Listening in 2013, it’s hard not to compare it to the year’s other album, m b v, that’s composed of tracks that theoretically could have been written anytime over a period of decades. Reissues are pop music’s preeminent form of historical revisionism, but the great thing about the Inspiration and Wings set is that combined, they’re closer to a parallel universe greatest-hits compilation, in a world where a label embraced Otis’ genius and eccentricity, instead of driving him away altogether.
It may have killed his career, but what a way to go out– Inspiration ranks among the 1970s most unique and personal musical statements. In the album, it’s possible to hear the kaleidoscopic ambition and bruised optimism of What’s Going On and Innervisions, hints of Miles Davis’ prolific funk-fusion period and Bob Marley’s ascendant good vibrations, the lingering specter of Love’s death-of-innocence opus Forever Changes, and the drawn-out, spaced-out folk-rock sigh emanating from Laurel Canyon. The month Inspiration was released, Otis’ friend Billy Preston hit #1 with his single “Nothing From Nothing,” and Inspiration’s beatific title track channels that same generous spread-the-good-word spirit, which he refracts through the kind of sleek, jazz-derived rock that NYC transplants Steely Dan were mastering at the time.
Otis was no druggie, but admitted in a recent interview that Inspiration highlight “Aht Uh Mi Hed” arose from one of his three acid trips, colored by the isolation-derived depression he was suffering during the album’s multi-year recording process. It’s a testament to Otis’ character that “Hed” is the opposite of dark. Instead, it serenely shimmers, like “Strawberry”: a drum machine and organ form a foundation for Otis to float above, buoyed by flutes and broken up by an orchestral interlude before segueing into a choppy funk coda. Even under such a spell, Otis convinces himself “it’s about time for something new,” and that he’s “got to grow.” Inspiration has long been cited as the symbolic birthplace of Prince, but the reissue’s timing and penchant for dream-logic also suggests that Channel Orange is among the album’s most prominent descendants.
“Hed”s otherworldly air is due in part to the Rhythm King drum machine, a gadget that Otis had fallen for when writing “Strawberry”. In late 1971, Sly Stone blended a Rhythm King track with a wah-wah guitar on “Family Affair”, lending that track its irresistible effervescence, and in February 1973, Timmy Thomas rode the Rhythm King to #1, via his single “Why Can’t We Live Together”. The machine’s unique analog warmth allowed savants like Otis and Stone to do everything themselves, starting one of its simple metronomic presets and building a song around it. This is how “Pling!”– Inspiration’s penultimate track and the centerpiece of its experimental b-side– took shape. With only the Rhythm King keeping rhythm like a clock in the next room, Otis layers on a quiet Fender Rhodes line, stirs in a hodgepodge of instumentation– a harp, a sax– but never brings the track over the level of a whisper. Along with the jazzy, film-score style instrumental “Rainy Day” and percolating Esquivel-style lounge-funk of “XL-30” preceding it, “Pling!” moves Inspiration far away from Otis’ blues and R&B roots, aiming toward a space at the time only occupied by his imagination. It’s this angle that many indie fans in 2001 were drawn to– the Luaka Bop reissue featured pull-quotes from Sean O’Hagan, the kitsch-obsessed mastermind of the high-minded 90s British ensemble High Llamas, and Stereolab founder Tim Gane.
It’s also possible to imagine Columbia’s befuddled reaction upon hearing these tracks– as great as they sound to music fans now as then, they must have signaled something closer to a break with reality, or perhaps one of those nettlesome “creative” types who release new material every 4-5 years. When Columbia dropped him from their roster, Otis retreated and regrouped, recording new tracks and sending them to labels, who uniformly showed no interest–to their detriment. As a compilation, Wings of Love plays like a bonafide album– it’s got an “intro” and everything– and a good one, at that.If it doesn’t quite show the knack for experimentation and variety hinted at via Inspiration, Wings is a quietly amazing document of Otis’ doggged determination over the quarter century between leaving the business and the first Inspiration reissue.
It’s a fair bet that Otis has never come into contact with the retromaniacal AM Gold-worshipping weirdos who’ve been lingering around the L.A. fringes for the better part of a decade now, but delightfully lo-fi, echo-laden Wings tracks like “Special”, “Tryin’ To Get Close To You”, and the Prince-styled “If You’d Be Mine” bear a striking (if entirely coincidental) resemblance to Ariel Pink and Nite Jewel. It’s easy to parallel Otis dreaming of these demos winding up on Top 40 radio during the actual 1980s, with the recent chillwave contingent dreaming similar dreams from a fully nostalgic register. Elsewhere on the album, there are nods backward to Drifters-style soul (“Walkin’ Down the Country”), gaudy synth monsters (“Give Me A Chance”), and even a couple cuts closing the album that nod back to Otis’ blues-rock roots. Yes, Wings is packaged as an addendum to a reissue, but it’s no simple B-sides collection.
If all this isn’t convincing enough, perhaps Wings’ outlandish 11 minute title track, sequenced right in the middle of the album, will. At once, it’s a reminder that Otis had few peers as a shredder (at his peak, both Bowie and the Stones offered him sideman gigs), and the sort of wild, proggy imagination that would make Yes album-art designer Roger Dean blush. It starts with seashore sound effects– waves crashing, seagulls squawking– and blossoms into the kind of earnestly majestic, new age prog-funk that might not be everyone’s bag, but which is impossible not to appreciate on its own merits, because it’s performed with such conviction. It only adds to the song’s allure that it’s been kept private for so long. Such is the wholly unique career trajectory of Shuggie Otis, who is now touring for the first time in 40 years. The Child Prodigy, the Next Big Thing, the Cultishly Admired LA Recluse. Johnny Alexander Veliotes, Jr., the man who vanished, but never stopped.
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