The Return of a Prodigy: Shuggie Otis, Inspiration Information/Wings of Love

By Daniel Garrett

Shuggie Otis, Inspiration Information/Wings of Love
Producer Shuggie Otis
Executive Producer Johnny Otis
Epic Records, 2013

Shuggie Otis, the son of Johnny Otis, and a collaborator of Etta James and Frank Zappa and Mos Def, does not sound as if he is trying to fulfill anyone’s expectations but his own.  His album Inspiration Information  (1974) has become legendary; and has been augmented with subsequent songs, gathered together in a collection called Wings of Love.  The confident and sweet, bushy-haired young singer-guitarist Shuggie Otis’s dark and dense but mellow music, a music of concentration and sensuality, is a form of funk music.  Funk music is music of groove and mood and pleasure and rhythm, a musical form related to rhythm-and-blues music and soul music but more expansive in structure than rhythm-and-blues and with less anger and sorrow than soul; it is a music of relaxation, a music of sexuality; and it may be the freest popular music ever made in America.  Its limit may be that although it can deliver ideas and observations it, typically, is less able to cultivate a sensibility that can manage the hard work to be done in maintaining important relationships and reforming society.  Usually funk music is more gleeful and wilder than that of Otis, more suggestive of a communal party; whereas the music of Otis is thoughtful, personal—even private.  The Otis oeuvre contains the albums Al Kooper with Shuggie Otis (1970), Here Comes Shuggie Otis (also 1970), and Freedom Flight (1971).  The control of Shuggie Otis suggests thought rather than impulse—it indicates the basis of command and design.

Shuggie Otis is a guitarist, drummer, pianist, and vibraphonist.  Shuggie Otis, the son of a Greek and North African father and an African-American and Filipino mother, has said that being a mixture is kind of fun.  One can hear he likes to blend sounds too.  Otis songs, with their controlled melodious grooves, are perceptible as compositions, and do not seem as casually thrown together as many funk pieces.  His music might be what some observers might have expected if they knew that the prodigy Shuggie Otis had played as a boy with the musicians Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker, and toured Europe and Asia as a largely self-taught young man with his father, the rhythm-and-blues band leader Johnny Otis; and, as well, had been an admirer of the work of Debussy and Stravinsky and very briefly studied music composition with British guitarist Albert Harris, while keeping up with productions from the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Johnny (Guitar) Watson, and Stevie Wonder.  Some of Shuggie Otis’s instrumental works are the most satisfying—which is odd for a popular music form.  The sense of experience is humane and personal.

Inspiration Information was recorded in the home studio of Johnny and Shuggie Otis; and the skills of Shuggie Otis would be appreciated by David Bowie, David Byrne, Quincy Jones, Buddy Miles, Prince, the Rolling Stones, and Raphael Saadiq.  The song “Inspiration Information” is exuberant but not chaotic, rude, or vulgar—it is, at once, concentrated, mellow, and intense, in the Otis style, seeming rooted in reflection and motivated by a happy-making encounter.  Intimate and tender is the harmonious, soulful “Island Letter,” with its restrained but potent feeling.  It seems to center on an affair with an island girl—and its words are allusive, rather than precise.  The sultry “Sparkle City” evokes the glamour of the cosmopolitan, but could be about the inner life, spiritual consciousness; whereas the tiny, pulsating beat of “Oht Uh Mi Hed (Out of My Head)” calls to mind the Caribbean, preceding the song “Happy House.”  Delicate and mellow is the instrumental “Rainy Day,” but “XL-80” is churning, even experimental.  A kind of mood music, “Pling!” is similar to “Out of My Head”; and the uptempo “Not Available” could be danced to, parallel to disco music.  The bonus tracks are “Miss Pretty” and “Magic” and “Things We Like to Do” and “Castle Top Jam.”

The now lean, soft-spoken and austere but friendly loner Shuggie Otis’s Wings of Love, the new companion to Inspiration Information, answers a lot of historical questions about the creative interests and development of the musician.  What has Shuggie Otis been doing since Inspiration Information and his other 1970s music?  It is not surprising to learn that Otis continued to make music, but it is surprising to learn that the record companies Otis approached were not interested in that music—evidence that while artists are concerned about creativity and content, executives are concerned with financial profit.  Otis sometimes took day jobs, and even drank a bit.  His art deserved support.  Shuggie Otis did have his old music sampled in rap songs Otis found silly—and some of his music was transformed by Beyonce, whom Otis found clever.  On Love, a promise to commemorate love via a special message, the celebratory “Special” has a bubbly groove and ringing rhythm and percussion.  With its wails and moody funk rhythm reminiscent of Sly and the Family Stone’s work, the sexually insistent “Give Me Something Good” has a busy, bustling arrangement.  Featuring claims of love and sexual attraction, “Tryin’ to Get Close to You” is dense, frantic, and fast.  It is impossible not to think that Otis, an influence on others, was influenced by the work of others.  “Walkin’ Down the Country” is mostly a soft, slow ballad with a louder, uptempo but brief refrain; and then there is “Doin’ What’s Right” and “Wings of Love.”  With beautiful strings and great natural (bird) sounds, “Wings of Love” is dramatic, atmospheric—even cinematic, having something of a rock edge.  The apparent orchestral density of the music is impressive in this declaration of love.

In the sonic invention “Give Me a Chance,” a request for love that has beauty and speed, is marked by plaintive urgent voice amid dynamic but somewhat abstract music, with a shimmering rhythm and a hard, driving beat.  It is hard to guess how many musicians are participating in the making of the music.  Is it one or more?  Despite the good impressions the song’s music makes, there is something surprisingly impersonal and unified about it that makes this listener think it is only the creative idea and expression of one person—of one person determined to do everything, not permitting diversity.  It is funny to think that authentic creators like Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, and Shuggie Otis, out of self-sufficiency, instigated the dependence on machinery for music creation, now a source of bland artificiality.  Warm and enthusiastic, “Don’t You Run Away” is a song that races, fusing rock and rhythm-and-blues.  Often Otis seems to go in two directions at once, as with the exultant beginning of this song, which becomes an encouraging thing—direct, percolating, and funky; with a shifting arrangement that becomes howling but not coarse, not chaotic.  Beseeching but fast is “Fawn.”  Is it artificially dense?  “If You’d Be Mine” is really good—bright, intense—guitar playing.  “Black Belt Sheriff” is performed live with voice and guitar; bluesy rock with strumming, low-voice singing, it is a downbeat city travelogue.  And the collection ends with “Destination You.”

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House and ABC No Rio, is a writer whose work has appeared in print and online, in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Identity Theory, Illuminations, Option, Pop Matters, Rain Taxi, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics, as well as The Compulsive Reader.  Daniel Garrett edited poetry for the male feminist Changing Men magazine, wrote about the African-American artists Henry Tanner, Edward Bannister, and Reginald Madison for Art & Antiques, reported on environmental issues and organized the first interdepartmental meeting on environmental justice for National Audubon (The Audubon Activist), reviewed books for World Literature Today, and essayed international film for Offscreen.  Daniel Garrett has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth, which features stories of friendship and love, ignorance and knowledge, and art and mundane work, in the lives of a woman artist and her associates.