Shuggie Otis
Random Artist Memories: Shuggie Otis

Otis continues to perform sporadically but remains a talented, insular mystery.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of Shuggie Otis.

I see a few hands up! Wonderful. Most people will know him for his 1971 single “Strawberry Letter 23”, which became a hit for The Brothers Johnson in 1977, a true funk/soul classic showcasing Louis Johnson’s iconic slap bass style. Others will know him as the son of legendary rhythm and blues bandleader Johnny Otis. If you haven’t heard of him, don’t feel bad. He was a teenage musical prodigy who put out a trio of eclectic records in the early 1970s, culminating in 1974’s Inspiration Information, and then all but disappeared. What happened?

Otis began his career as a session musician in his mid-teens and released his last record when he was only 20. He spent three years working on Inspiration Information, experimenting with drum machines and different keyed instruments, Stevie Wonder-ing (stee-vi wuhn-der, verb, meaning to play all instruments on a record) the nine finished tracks, expanding his sound in quieter, folkier, jazzier, and electro-funkier directions from his previous two records which were more rooted in rhythm and blues. The album flopped, and Otis receded from the spotlight. Legend has it that The Rolling Stones offered him a tryout after Mick Taylor’s departure in 1974, but he turned them down. He turned down other opportunities to work with big-name producers on new projects throughout the rest of the decade. While he had been a prolific session player before he was old enough to vote, grownup Shuggie spent the next few decades mostly playing with his father’s band. He didn’t release a record of new material again until 2018.

The weight of genius and expectation on bright young talent can be too much of a burden. Prodigies often reach adulthood and find they don’t want to do what they’ve been told they should be doing. Inspiration Information may have been an indicator of the types of music Otis wanted to explore, away from his blues roots, and perhaps he became disillusioned by the music industry and/or frustrated at being forced into a box. None of his records are masterpieces, but they are all good enough to see his talent and glimpse where he could have gone had he wanted to.

Inspiration Information was brought back to the public’s notice in 2001, when record label Luaka Bop, David Byrne’s wonderful repository for esoteric and interesting world music, re-released it on CD. Generations who had missed out on him the first time got to experience his exploratory folk-soul and wonder anew, what if? Otis continues to perform sporadically but remains a talented, insular mystery. He’s a flawed genius who never let the world see what could have been.

Photo: Sachyn Mital (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Adam is just a dude based in Brooklyn who enjoys thinking about music in all forms. He enjoys cooking, board games, baseball, and arranging songs for ukulele that shouldn't be played on ukulele in an extremely amateurish way. Adam is shown here at age 13 on his way to a bar mitzvah.

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