The 2001 release of Shuggie Otis ‘Inspiration Information’ on David Bryne’s Luaka Bop represented a great musical landmark in the lives of both of us here at Andresmusictalk, myself, Henrique Hopkins, and Andre Grindle. While both of us were busy in various musical activities on the opposite coasts of the United States, serving our apprentischip as musical fans and critics, Otis album came along and had a huge impact on our personal and musical lives. Otis’ album presented something new and familiar at the same time, a melange of funk, soul, jazz, gospel, blues and rock and roll, similar in tone to the most advanced and creative of his contemporaries, but also illuminating the paths of future innovators and stars such as Prince, Lenny Kravitz, Outkast and Beyonce. One of the appeals of this was the mixture of the familar, represented by Shuggies’ original ‘Strawberry Letter 23′ and the general funk/soul/blues/rock vibes, with the unfamiliar, Shuggies’ unique genius and talent for combining sounds, as well as his gentle, plaintive voic. The 13 years since that release have seen Shuggie actually return to the stage and recording, and we have this release to thank for that. This album then, has a unique place in our lives as a classic era funk recording that actually belongs to us even more than its time. We aim to explain why:
When I first purchased Shuggie Otis “Inspiration Information” in late 2001 or early 2002, I can’t quite remember, I was no virgin to the purchase of back catalog funk, jazz and soul CD’s. I’d spent most of high school exploring deeply music and styles I’d had a familiarity with my whole life, but instead of just dipping my toes into the pool, diving in fully, getting truly wet. I still remember the exact day I bought Miles Davis “On the Corner” for instance, a rainy June day at the end of my 11th grade school year. Most of these purchases were of artists I was familar with, but my crate diggers mindset caused me to seek out their lesser known recordings, especially since my father had so many of these artists recordings already. Many times it focused on recordings that were scorned or disregarded at the time of their release, such as “Hear My Dear” by Marvin Gaye. Some of these were already lying in obscure corners of the families collection like unhugged Teddy Bears. But even with all this acquring of classic music, Shuggie Otis’ album was something different, an artist from the ’70s whose music and person I was only vaguely familar with but who’s music very quickly became a part of not just my perception of the ’70s or classic funk and soul, but who’s music existed in my life contemperaneously with Outkast, Mos Def, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, D’Angelo, Maxwell, The Goodie Mob, Common, the Roots, Beyonce, and other artists who were catching my ear with new, contemporary but classic sounds.
When I first heard of “Inspiration Information through a review in VIBE magazine, I knew for a fact I’d seen Otis’ face somewhere before. The musical name of “Otis” was most definitely not unknown to me. My father had been a big fan of Johnny Otis in the 1950s. Johnny Otis himself, who passed a few years ago, is an incredible figure in Black music history and American history as a whole. Otis was a Greek American Bay Area hipster who identified strongly with African American people and culture. So much so that my father said Otis used to “play Black” when he was younger. It is a well discussed narrative that certain blacks who had the ability to do so “passed” for white in order to enjoy the priviliges that provided, but the reverse story is not often told. Johnny Otis surpassed Norman Mailer’s “White Negro”, because instead of simply appropriating black style to his own ends, he actually cast his lot with black people, placing his music on the R&B charts, marrying a black woman, leading and aiding black musicians, living in the black community and even pastoring a black church. I would later find out that Johnny Otis was a Bay Area man as well, born in Vallejo and raised in Berkely, and he represented the unique racial history of the Bay.
Dad had a recording he’d made of a Monterey Jazz Festival featuring The Johnny Otis Revue. I remember that tape very fondly because it had a Soul Train episode from 1987 featuring Jody Watley on the beginning of it. The Monterey Jazz Festival section was something I didn’t understand at first, but came to enjoy more and and more as time went on. Part of that enjoyment was just remembering how much I enjoyed watching it with Dad, and having him detail and tell tales about the world of West Coast Blues and R&B back in the 1950s. The tape featured the Johnny Otis Revue and I remember Otis, a tall white man resplendent in a white suit with a red shirt and tie, hair slicked back, speaking in a hip and cool cadence. Otis played the MC for such great acts as Big Jay McNeely, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Etta James and others. I remember Dad laughing at his childhood favorites getting on stage wearing wigs and other vanities. He also told me Otis used to do what amounted for passing for black, with most fans thinking he was simply “high yellow” like Billy Eckstine.
Behind Otis on stage, there was a quiet, handsome, deathly serious looking guitar player. The young man in the red band outfit had a large Afro, even then in the ’80s. I remember Dad mentioning he resembled a friend of the family, a man named Derek Love. I would find out almost 12 years later that this was Shuggie Otis, Johnny’s son and an artist who was critically acclaimed and had an extremely promising future back in the ’70s.
Fast forward to the early millenium, 2001. I was still getting VIBE magazine at the time. VIBE was my favorite, even over The Source and XXL, which I also subscribed to, because the range of music covered was wider. But even then, by 2001, I felt the ads were getting too prominent and the music was being smothered. One thing I admired about VIBE in its Quincy Jones owned hey day, was that it also ran great features on historical black music right alongside new artists. Even Rickey Vincent, the author of the Funk book, wrote for VIBE in those days, and I found out about his book through the magazine. Funk, jazz and soul rereleases got album review space right next to the latest from Mary J Blige and Foxxy Brown, sometimes done by Greg Tate or Nelson George. One month, a review was done on the rerelease of Shuggie Otis album “Inspiration Information”, from 1974, on Luaka Bop.
The review fascinated me because it positioned Otis as a predecesor of Prince, due to his ability to play all the instruments in his recordings through multi tracking. It also informed me that he was the writer of “Strawberry Letter 23” which I knew in its popular form as a song by The Brothers Johnson, and a song that had seemed to have been very special to me my whole life. I didn’t run right out and get the album, but it was definitely on my list of things to check out.
Sometime after I came back from my first trip to Paris, and the events of September 11, 2001, I started hanging out with a friend from my job, Dameion. The world seemed to be going crazy with wars and reports of wars. The Bay Area was its usual stout anti war self, with ’60s type protest now being ingrained as a part of the culture, so much so that the city of Berkeley got rid of its military recruitment office. Though it was fodder for conversation, this didn’t affect me and Dame much. Our goal was to put together a band that would capture the worlds attention through music.
Me and Dame would cruise around town, with him playing me demo’s off his Mac Book. The Mac Book he had was a near magical device to me at the time, because whenever I’d buy a CD, if Dameion liked a song, he’d immediately rip it straight to his Itunes, right then and there. He’d do the same with music I liked, burning me a CD of music right then and there. At the time, we were still buying CD’s heavily. I remember buying Shuggie Otis CD from a Borders Books and music. I bought the CD with a bushelful of other CD’s as well as music books like Charles Mingus “Beneath the Underdog.”
I don’t even remember the other CD’s I bought on that day. Very soon after I put the CD in Dame’s MacBook, Shuggie’s music became for a time, the only music I seemed to care about. Dame felt it too because he ripped it to his computer right then and there. We were blown away by an album of funky songs, unique stop and start grooves, tender ballads with morbid, almost funerary sounding music, funky rock and roll guitar playing, and Otis quiet, intimate falsetto. We’d later learn the album, besides the cuts where Otis did his one man band thing playing all the instruments, had some cuts that featured top notch studio names we knew such as Wilton Felder, Leon Haywood, and George Duke, ’70s L.A/Bay Area musical royalty.
What was it that captivated us so? Well, for one thing, we were both fledling musicians who wanted to have a band that played instruments, but were also deeply influenced by hip hop and sampling. So we were constantly on the lookout for music that SOUNDED old in its analog recording quality and groove, but was also NEW, by virtue of it being unheard or less heard. Otis album fit that category for sure.
But Otis’ music was most valuable for its own qualites. The Luaka Bop release was actually a combination of two Otis’ albums, “Inspiration Information” and “Freedom Flight”, which of course, presented a different picture than listeners in 1974 would have gotten. The sound of the album itself was highly unique. The first song “Inspiration Information” was Shuggie’s unique take on a joyful but heavy Sly Stone type of vibe, a very happy type of funk but with a deep seriousness to it as well. “Island Letter” had a deep warm, underwater sound to it, and was a song dominated as much of the album by the organ. “Sparkle City” was Shuggie’s unique variant on mid ’70s funk, low down, bluesy and mean.
The album was full of layered stop and start grooves, seeming to move in all directions. One of the most prominent sounds was the drum machine on Shuggie’s organ, which played a classic organclave pre set drum pattern on “XL-30.”
One of the funkiest songs on the album was “Happy House”, which was an all too brief one minute, sixteen second cock tease. I remember me and Dame cracking up over Shuggies lyrics about “from me/and your mama too.” While a cut like “Ice Cold Daydream” would be a soundtrack to the great chase movie we havent made yet, driving and grooving to it’s arch ’70s stop and start groove. Through it all was Shuggie’s soothing voice, fragile, soulful, and speaking loudly by whispering where others would shout. You almost wondered how that voice could come from the same person who produced such fire elsewhere in the music.
A song like “XL-30” was nearly frieghtning in its early electronic, killer clown fun house groove. The song we already knew, and which I’d use to introduce the album to other people like my dad with, was “Strawberry Letter 23.” That song was one that had been around for my whole lifetime plus a few years. I remembered it very well in my teen years, becakuse in the ’90s, our adolescent and teenaged horny selves would walk around asking a girl, “is it cool” to get with them. It was like I was hearing the song for the first time when I heard George Johnson say “If you try to ask/is it cool/is it cool.” Quincy Jones laced that production with the type of state of the art mastery that would later lead to the greatest selling and possibly most comprehensive pop recordings of all time, done with Michael Jackson. The Brothers Johnson’s “Starwberry Letter 23” was a modern, grooving, mid tempo ballad that was also funky, extremely funky and clean and slick at the same time. The song was powered by Louis Johnson’s highly individual slap bass sound and climaxed with a triumphant guitar part played by Lee Ritenhour.
“Strawberry Letter 23” on Shuggie’s album is another song. Strangely enough, it’s the same song, the basic notes of the bassline are there minus Louis propulsive style, the ending guitar solo is there, the lyrics, the tinkling bell melody, all the musical aspects of The Brothers Johnson and Jones’ later hit are present in Shuggie’s original, but Shuggie’s vibe is more stoned out, and hippie, with acoustic guitars sounding like sunset on Hippie Hill in San Francisco.
Shuggie’s two albums, together on one CD, became a soundtrack for my young ’20s, thirty years after they were recorded and ignored. “Strawberry Letter 23” has become a kind of a basic meme in black music, a foundational melody. I wonder sometimes if it came from the far bigger hit and classic The Brothers Johnson recorded, or if it came from the crate digging culture and David Bryne’s 2001 re release. I know Outkast quoted it in their megahit “Ms. Jackson” (the rhythm of the singing of “Never meant to make your daughter cry), Westside Connection quotes it on “Gangsta Nation” sung by the late Nate Dogg, and Beyonce quotes it as well on “Be With You.” In fact, I view those “Uh Oh’s” on “Crazy in Love”, the rhythm of them, as a child of “Strawberry Letter” as well.
Beyonce in fact is an artist who’s made her connection to Shuggie quite plain. She mentioned getting his album and it being an inspiration to 2003’s “Dangerously in Love.” If you listen to that, her song “Gift From Virgo”, is a song laid on top of Otis’ instrumental “Rainy Day.” Also as mentioned, the album has numerous references to “Starwberry Letter”.
Beyonce’s usage of the album just goes to strengthen the feeling I have that the rerelease of Shuggie’s music came at exactly the right time. Since then I’ve gotten into other re releases such as funk music from Nigeria, and another one from the Bay Area, Eugene Blacknell’s music, another album that though old, defined a certain period of my life. Shuggie is like blues artists who were ignored in their time and then rose to popularity in the ’60s when the Blues was acknowledged as the cornerstone of Rock. Shuggie hit the Bay Area last year and unfortunately, I missed his show to see one of his inheritors, Prince, in Vegas. But I’m elated he’s begun to perform again, because back when I got his music, he was treated as one of those great disappearing geniuses who could only be enjoyed in recorded form. I’m glad he’s back and I wish him the recognition and joy from playing his music now that he may not have gotten in the past, on HIS terms! And I hope in particular, he has some sense of how music he did 40 years ago lingered around like a funky landmine to hit the sweet spot of listeners many years in the future.