Tag Archives: Shuggie Otis

Funk & Disco Pops Of 1977: ‘Right On Time’ by The Brothers Johnson

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One good way for a musician, group or duo to avoid the problem of a sophomore slump album is to avoid the common mistake of xeroxing the style of their debut set for the follow up. I’ve seen it happen with all sorts of music,many of us have. Some people for some reason just opt to play it safe. But the Johnson’s were working with Quincy Jones and neither one of them were content with being safe.

As with their debut Louis and George were looking to do keep a grounded groove and keep the melody out front but all the same they elected to make a change. On Look Out for #1 they were based in hardcore Sly Stone styled funk this found them associated more with the latter 70’s sophistifunk style. Meaning creamier production,somewhat more of a pop-jazz base to everything and overall not as much of a musical attack to the sound. Now the real kicker is how they approached this (minor) change in their musical style.

Actually this album contains only two songs that could qualify as hardcore uptempo funk and that’s the title song and the instrumental “Brother Man”. They’re similar to the funk from their debut but even here the sound is a lot glossier and the playing is much tighter then before. Most of this album takes it’s cue from “Runnin’ From Your Lovin'” which begins the album in a similar tone to before but the approach again is gentler,with the synthesizers and reverb laid on much thicker.

Of course on the instrumental “Q” it starts out sounding almost like a Lee Ritenour style riff . And then it goes into more of a crunching funk breakdown-not a bad combo really. The same thing more or less happens on the vocal “Never Leave You Lonely”-that combination of pop jazz and hard funk”Free Yourself,Be Yourself” has what I’d describe as a very aggressively comforting pop melody-not as hard driving as Sly but not heavily harmonized like the Philly sound but actually something of a cross between the two.

Their famous hit version of Shuggie Otis’s “Strawberry Letter#23” is quite a bit more abstract than the original,with a very striking almost art rock style jazz guitar riff from George and again reverb and echo effects up the wazoo. The album ends with the folksy soul of “Love Is”,which has a lot of commonalities with the type of music Bill Withers and to an extent The Isley Brothers were making in the early to mid 70’s- only with the latter in the decade production sheen.

Generally speaking, this is somewhat of a smoother ride than they started out with-even when the rhythms kick up they hit just a little bit softer in a similar turn of phrase to how Miles Davis described his own musical approach. It’s also an important lesson in never making the same album twice. Even though the musicians and musical sound are similar there’s a clear difference in approach. And it seemed to have paid off because this album succeeded creatively,musically and commercially to the level of their debut set in every way.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Special” by Shuggie Otis

Shuggie Otis represents what I refer to as a “new old artist” who defined my musical interests just after the turn of the millennium. His only knowledge to me before that was a passing reference as the composer (and original recorder of) the Brothers Johnson hit “Strawberry Letter#23”.  It was through a Luaka Pop label reissue of his under sung 1974 album Inspiration Information that got my attention,through my father of course. My first thoughts hearing it was “this was a Prince/Stevie Wonder type musician who never was”.

Otis’s father Johnny was a very famous musical impresario,known in the lingo of his day as the “white negro” singer/musician/arranger/talent scout/DJ out of the Bay Area of California. Shuggie began playing with his dad in the end of the 60’s. But his own career never truly took off. In fact,he spent over 33 years tinkering with his follow up to Inspiration Information. The album was finally released in 2013 and was entitled Wings Of Love. Recorded over several decades,the first full song on the album (recorded around 1980) really caught my own ear. It was called “Special”.

A wooshing sound drives in the fuzz/ringing rhythm guitar combo of the intro as Otis responds to his own echoplex vocally. Than the main rhythm of the song kicks in-driving both the refrain and chorus whose changes are carried largely by Otis’s vocal changes. The drums have a heavy Brazilian march approach. The bass line loops around several guitar parts. One a phat wah wah,the other a light chicken scratch and another playing a quavering,high pitched ringing melody. On the refrain parts,Otis singing’s in a higher and calmer voice. And on the refrains,with a heavier shout along with the ringing guitar part.

Again,this was a song that seemed to be recorded in the early 80’s. Yet its origins seems to come out of the psychedelic/cinematic funk sound of the late 60’s/early 70’s. The production is very trippy-full of echo and fuzz filter on nearly every sound. Yet the groove is strong and funky all the way. In the intro especially,it reminds me a bit of Curtis Mayfield’s “(If There’s A Hell Below) We’re All Gonna Go”. Needless to say,this is generally punchier and more stripped down than that song was. Still,its one of the finest grooves I’ve heard Shuggie Otis throw down since the mid 70’s.

 

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Filed under 2013, chicken scratch guitar, cinematic funk, drums, Funk Bass, funk rock, fuzz guitar, guitar, lead guitar, psychedelic soul, rhythm guitar, Shuggie Otis, Uncategorized, wah wah guitar

My Life with You I Share: An Alternate Timeline Review of Prince’s For You

Note from Zach: As you may or may not know, I’ve spent the last several weeks writing about the songs from Prince’s debut album on my chronological Prince blog, dance / music / sex / romance. In the process, I’ve been struck by the many contingencies that exist around For You, and Prince’s early career in general. If things had gone even slightly differently; if his label–or, for that matter, Prince himself–had shown even a little less confidence in his artistic development; then we would be looking at a very different musical landscape in 2016. There’s also the fact that, as I’ve noted several times in my track-by-track posts, it’s difficult to look at For You in retrospect without seeing it as just the first, not-entirely-successful glimpse at a talent and vision that would find its full expression in years to come. But what if that perspective wasn’t the default? What if For You wasn’t the first step in a long career by Prince, but in fact his first and last album? This post is my attempt to think my way through this situation: think of it as a look back at For You from a possible alternate timeline. I don’t know if I will do this for other albums in the future–or, like, ever again–but I thought it was an interesting exercise to examine Prince’s earliest days as a recording artist through a completely different lens. I hope you find it interesting, too.

The reclusive multi-instrumentalist known only as “Prince” may not be as much of a household name as, say, Shuggie Otis; but to serious aficionados of 1970s funk and soul, he inspires a kind of hushed reverence normally reserved for the likes of Stevie Wonder. In fact, Prince’s mainstream obscurity and his cult notoriety are two sides of the same coin: both stem from his having released only one album, 1978’s For You, before he disappeared from the music scene completely. Thanks to a decades-long process of discovery by collectors and rehabilitation by critics, however, in 2016 he stands as one of the great “what-ifs” of 20th century pop music.

The story behind the making of For You is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. An introverted musical prodigy from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Prince signed a multi-million dollar contract with Warner Bros. Records when he was just 17 years old–which unsurprisingly made waves in the recording industry trades at the time. Also remarkable was the fact that, as a 1978 press release put it, “Prince did it all. Composed the music, produced the sessions. Played the instruments (drums, guitars, pianos, bass synthesizers and more) and sang all the lead and background vocals. He even wrote the string parts.” He was, according to legend (and the press release), the youngest producer in W.B.’s history as a label.

(Photo removed at request of rights holder.)

But Prince’s inexperience and perfectionism proved to be his undoing. The story goes that he blew through all $180,000 of his three-album recording budget on For You alone: holing up in the Sausalito Record Plant for days on end, tinkering obsessively with the songs. When it was finally released, the album was a modest success: lead single “Soft and Wet” even reached Number 12 on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles Chart (though it peaked at only Number 92 on the Hot 100). But the second single, “Just as Long as We’re Together,” stalled at Number 91 on the R&B charts; the album itself also dropped rapidly, peaking at only Number 163 on theBillboard 200. Prince did get some positive press from African American teen magazines like Right On!, where his soft, almost feminine good looks and ineffable air of mystery made him marketable as a pop idol. But the mainstream largely passed him by, and Warner ultimately decided that another album wasn’t worth the investment; after Prince made an awkward, tentative live debut at Minneapolis’ Capri Theatre in January 1979, the label cut their losses.

Which is a shame, because if nothing else, For You positively bristles with potential. The aforementioned “Soft and Wet” is futuristic funk, streamlining the pioneering synthesizer sound of earlier acts like Parliament with an added dose of fey, flirtatious sexuality. Closing song “I’m Yours” starts as a lite-funk workout, then transforms abruptly into full-blown arena rock. The opening title track, meanwhile, is lush baroque soul–not to mention evidence of how Prince managed to blow almost $200K on a single record–with a blissed-out a cappella chorus of multi-tracked Princes singing in unison. It’s like an R&B “Good Vibrations”; the kind of bold, hubristic statement you’d expect from an established artist with multiple successes behind them, not an upstart teenager who came out of nowhere and would return to obscurity just as soon.

There are also more predictable pleasures, albeit always with a subtle tweak. “Baby” is a note-perfect Philly soul simulacrum (had Prince ever even been to Philadelphia?), with lyrics about the decidedly unconventional subject of an unplanned pregnancy. “My Love is Forever” is chirpy disco, but with guitar leads more muscular than even Nile Rodgers would dare attempt. “In Love” also sounds decidedly of-its-time, but with lyrics (“I really wanna play in your river”) that are disarmingly frank in their eroticism. And on the soft songs–“Crazy You” on Side One, “So Blue” on the eccentrically-named “The Other Side”–the 18-year-old shows a depth of musical range and vocal dexterity far beyond his years. For You isn’t earth-shattering, per se–there’s a reason why it didn’t set the world on fire when it came out in 1978–but its subtle blend of musical styles and Prince’s oddly demure lustfulness belie an inventive artistic persona that isn’t quite like anything else, before or since. It’s little wonder that several influential members of the new school of “alternative” R&B, including Frank Ocean and Janelle Monáe, swear by this relatively obscure debut record from the late ’70s.

The afterlife of For You is even stranger than the story of its birth. Prince, as mentioned above, seems to have disappeared after he was dropped by Warner: presumably back to his hometown of Minneapolis, though conflicting reports also claim he became a successful session musician in L.A. It’s certainly difficult to imagine an artist as bold and ambitious as Prince clearly was leaving music behind entirely; there are thus numerous rumors of later maneuvers from behind the scenes. The tracks “Do Me, Baby” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” from the 1979 debut album by André Cymone–Prince’s fellow Minneapolitan, and his bass player at the ill-fated Capri Theatre show–are both heavily rumored to have been written by Prince; though they don’t sound quite like anything on For You, so whether it was actually him is anyone’s guess. There’s also been speculation that he played the guitar part on Lipps, Inc.’s 1980 single “Funkytown”: still the biggest hit ever to come out of the Twin Cities. Otherwise, all pop cryptologists have to go by is a string of little-known B-sides from Minneapolis-based artists like Sue Ann Carwell and Alexander O’Neal, with writing credits from suspiciously pseudonymous-sounding names like Joey Coco and Alexander Nevermind.

Meanwhile, the stature of Prince’s sole official release has only grown with time. The album was out of print for most of the 1980s, until it received a spike of notoriety among crate-diggers in the hip-hop era: see, for example, the sample of “Soft and Wet” in RBL Posse’s “I Ain’t No Joke.” This led to the album being reissued in the early ’90s, along with a renewal of interest from critics and musical historians. Today, as noted above, it’s a bona fide cult record, feted among artists and listeners on the left field of R&B, pop, and hip-hop for its unique, genre- and gender-fluid sensibility. Prince, meanwhile, has remained reclusive, though he’s presumably still alive: with the album’s 40th anniversary fast approaching in 2018, it would be great to see him come out of retirement and play some of these old songs for his new and growing fanbase. The world might not have been ready for For You in 1978, but I think it just might be ready now. Hopefully, wherever Prince is today, he realizes that.

(All right, that’s it, y’all…thanks for indulging me in this little A.U. fan fiction exercise. I’m actually taking next weekend off from Andresmusictalk, but I’ll be back on October 8 with something that will almost certainly not be about Prince. See you then!)

This post is cross-posted from dance / music / sex / romance.

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Filed under 1970's, Alexander O'Neal, Prince, Uncategorized, Warner Bros.

Andre’s Amazon Archive for 10/18/2014: “Live In Williamsburg” by Shuggie Otis

Live In Williamsburg

First time I ever heard Shuggie Otis perform was on an episode of Conan O’Brien in 2001. It was when his Inspiration Information album was reissued on Luaka Pop and suddenly there was an enormous demand for new music and performances by this once relatively obscure artist. Finally over a decade later we got that when Shuggie released Wings Of Love-an album of songs he’d recorded over the past 30-35 years. Still I’d always wanted to hear how he’d sound in a live setting. Bringing in a band that included his sons Eric and Nick for what he’s calling his Never Ending Tour,this album culls from a live date in Brooklyn NYC.

Of course it’s songs such as “Inspiration Information”,”Island Letter”,an elongated bluesy funk jam medley of “Sparkle City” and “Miss Pretty” and of course a version of “Aht Uh Mi Hed”-one of my favorite Shuggie Otis compositions in which the horn section plays the same part the Hammond Organ did on the original. “Tryin’ To Get Close To You”,”Me And My Woman” and “Doin’ What’s Right” present more of that Sly Stone-ish rhythm box based funk Shuggie expanded on as done in the live setting. “Sweetest Thing” is a slow,extended blues that goes on forever but really cooks as Shuggie’s guitar solo goes onto an organ on the next verse. “Wings Of Love” presents another elongated piece-playing out the Santana-like progressive fusion nature of the song. “Picture Of Love” and “Shuggie’s Boogie” both lay down the swinging blues thick while “Strawberry Letter#23” ends the affair on perhaps his best known song-done in a comfortable blend of his and the Brothers Johnson hit version.

All twelve of these performances here are wonderful. Shuggie Otis was much like Prince in terms of being the multi instrumentalist singer/songwriter/producer who seemed to be able to play a boundless array of musical styles. And this album album seems to play out that way. Very diverse running from funk to blues to progressive,exploratory jazz workouts. Of course after it’s over you realize one of the most important things about Shuggie Otis’s musical legacy-one that really shines onstage. And it’s that all of the music he plays represents links on one singular chain. And rather than play one link such as just the 12 bar blues? Shuggie explores the whole chain from top to bottom. And hearing him do this within a band context makes the whole affair all the more powerful to contemplate.

Originally Posted On October 16th,2014

Link to original review*

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Filed under Amazon.com, Blues, Funk, Jazz, Music Reviewing, Shuggie Otis

The Inspiration Information of Shuggie at the Turning of the Millennium: Andre’s Outlook

Shuggie

Looking back on when the century and also the millennium turned,the year 2000 was felt very much like a huge temporal pain reliever for me. No Y2K,could buy anything in a record store without being constantly questioned as to the “credibility of my musical tastes and overall? The futurist mentality that most science fiction/Star Trek admirers such as myself had been pining for seemed to at last be on the horizon. One memory was on a dark,snowy January first playing the O’Jay’s song “The Year 2000” in my room and having similar thoughts as to what Eddie Levert was singing about-all that wonder and promise. It would be sometime towards the middle of this year that another millennial milestones of my musical development occurred: my own introduction to Shuggie Otis’s Inspiration Information.

First of all I wanted to say that during the 2000/2001 period? I wouldn’t have sought out Shuggie Otis on my own because I still couldn’t stand the blues. It had nothing to do with tuning into any cliches of self pitying lyrics or anything. It was more a cultural misunderstanding of intent. Growing up in 1990’s central/Northern Maine? All any music lover would hear was how much the blues was part of every popular music. Outside the Top 10 radio? Most non commercial radio at the time was obsessed with the blues. And with such a sense of seriousness. From what I saw? No one ever danced or clapped their hands to chase their blues away. Just listened,frowned and sometimes even drank a lot. Because those were not qualities I felt boded well with music,itself a motivating factor in life? I did flatly reject any connection that the music (which I loved with my heart and soul) and it’s connection with the blues.

So on one warm and welcoming day in the summer of 2001? My father and I were about to go for a cruise to take in the beauty of nature. As well as some always vital father/son bonding time. On our way we stopped at Bull Moose records,the local music store chain in the state of Maine,and my father came out very excited. He had a CD in his hand with this bright orange 70’s art deco style about it. He told me that Talking Heads’ David Byrne had declared this album the big unsung 70’s masterpiece and re-released it on his Luaka Bop record label. The album of course was Inspiration Information by this man I vaguely knew about named Shuggie Otis. When I asked my father who he was,he told me Shuggie was the son of the blues icon Johnny Otis.

What was I hearing here? Johnny Otis? The BLUES? Well I actually recalling rolling my eyes and tisking lightly to myself. Had a feeling of “here we go-someone trying to up-sell me on the blues again. Like it’s the only music in the world”. It was likely I wanted to hear a Stevie Wonder,Curtis Mayfield or Miles Davis record I’d bought with me at that time. It was my dad’s car of course,and I wanted to understand why he’d be so gleeful about this music. So my father put the record in the CD player of our used 1992 Toyota Corolla. The first thing that came out of the speaker was this beautiful swell of male falsetto vocal parts-harmonizing with each other over an upbeat wah wah bass/guitar and a sunny organ solo.

By the time the sweetly monotone voice of Shuggie himself came in with the lyrics “we had a rainy day/I’m in a sneak back situation/Here’s a pencil pad/I’m gonna spread some information/You, making me happier/Now I am snappier, while I’m with you”?How was this music blues? The only blues I’d heard thus far related mainly to unemployment,romantic distress and death. I wasn’t hearing any of that with Shuggie Otis. There was this realization I was indeed hearing that meaningful,bright funk/soul music I loved. But it was a totally different sound on that level. Through “Island Letter”,”Aht Uh Mi Hed”,”Happy House” and this amazing percussive instrumental called “XL-30” that I asked my father to repeat over and over again that afternoon? There was a hollow,dreamy sound about this album that I’d really never heard before.

My father told me Shuggie played almost all the instruments on the album the way Prince did. Later on as I listened and read the liner notes? It came to me where I’d seen Shuggie’s name before. During that era I was deeply into the music of the Brothers Johnson. Even more so when I fully realized their involvement with two musical icons in my life: Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson. One of their biggest songs “Strawberry Letter#23” was originally written and recorded by Shuggie Otis in 1971 for his Freedom Flight album. After hearing the album itself and the bonus songs on that CD? I was truly shocked. By no definition I’d ever dealt with was this the blues that I had been hearing. Shuggie’s music helped me see the depth and complexity of the blues. This music was reflective,thoughtful,poetic and very tender.

Recently I debated with myself whether to bring this up here. But about seven years later? I was playing a beat up CD of this album I’d gotten later from the Bull Moose free bin with my fiancee while driving through town during a visit to see his family. Upon hearing “Aht Uh Mi Hed”? He remarked how much he enjoyed the way Shuggie used organ in his music. Such an instrumentally inclined remark from a fellow Generation X’er was very much unknown to me even by that time. It was only a year ago that I ended up with the album again-released with Shuggie’s newest set of unreleased material called Wings Of Love. After playing it in the car? Even my musically persnickety mother fell under the spell Shuggie Otis set with Inspiration Information. Although he absent mindedly remarked just last week that she thought “XL-30” sounded like something from the score of the film Napoleon Dynamite? Even her respect for Shuggie’s musicality remains undiminished.

Part of my overall respect for Shuggie Otis also came from how his music helped me to better appreciate session musicians and the vital role they play in many a musical masterpiece. I was aware of his session playing for his father Johnny. But not necessarily in how his playing helped to revitalize the careers of Etta James,Louis Jordan and Bobby Blue Bland and “Louie Louie” composer Richard Berry. Growing up I’d tended to view musicians who played out front in bands as being the most musically important-either as soloists or as members of bands. Though already very aware and involved with listening to The Crusaders by this time? My admiration for the non session/solo music of people such as Greg Phillinganes, Paulinho Da Costa, Bernard Wright,Weldon Irvine and bands such as Stuff began to grow and increase follwing my exposure to Shuggie.

As for my father,the man who originally introduced me to Shuggie Otis? He is still broadening my appreciation of the man to this very day. Only earlier today,when discussing this blog with him,did he discuss Shuggie’s involvement with Frank Zappa. Shuggie in fact played electric bass on Zappa’s iconic instrumental “Peaches en Regalia” from his 1969 album Hot Rats. My dad is a long time admirer of Zappa,who was an individual who often elevated musicians considered to be sidemen into positions of prominence. One such musician was the violinist Don Sugarcane Harris. It was mentioned by my father this afternoon that he first heard about Shuggie Otis via his session playing on Harris’s 1970 LP release Sugarcane. So when Luaka Pop reissued the Inspiration Information album on CD? My father,being unfamiliar with Shuggie’s solo music,was very eager to hear it. So as I was writing my own story about this man and his album? My father was telling me about the first time he heard of Shuggie Otis.

One of the reasons I still find this album to be some of the most beautiful funk ever recorded is association. When I first heard it? That magical 21’st century had arrived. The future that everyone had been dreaming about in the century before had at last arrived. And considering the dark days of the post 9/11 world would arrive in only a seasons time? This introduction to Shuggie Otis to my life always reminds me of the importance of maintaining dreamy optimism. Especially in the hardest of times. Also,with some later help from Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary? Hearing Shuggie Otis completely altered my perception of the blues. He really put a sunshine funk filter inside of his musicality. And it helped me realize that broadness of the soul/funk/jazz/blues musical spectrum-outside of any locally based misconceptions. As Branford Marsalis said of blues music itself? To this very day,whenever I hear Shuggie Otis’s Inspiration Information,it makes me smile.

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Filed under 1970's, 1990s, Funk, Local Radio, Maine, Psychedelia, Radio, Shuggie Otis, Soul

The Inspiration Information of Shuggie at the Turn of the Millenium: Rique’s Outlook

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.

 

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