Not with the band

BB King called him the best guitarist he’d heard. So how come Shuggie Otis is so little known?

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The music world is littered with artists whose star burned brightly for a brief time, only to fade into obscurity. Shuggie Otis did both to an extreme.

Born Johnny Alexander Veliotes Jnr in Los Angeles in 1953 – the son of celebrated band leader and television host Johnny Otis – by the time he was 12 the prodigious guitarist, singer and multi-instrumentalist was already playing live gigs as a member of his dad’s backing band, often wearing dark glasses and an inked-on moustache to gain entry to LA’s after-hours haunts.

At 15, he was invited by Bob Dylan keyboardist Al Kooper to appear on his Super Session album series and released his debut LP, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, a year later in 1970. Guest sessions with Frank Zappa, Etta James and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland followed, with Otis’s second LP, Freedom Flight, arriving in 1971. It featured the classic single Strawberry Letter 23 – a timeless slice of shimmering psychedelic soul, built round a swooning xylophone melody and inspired by love letters that his girlfriend used to send him written on strawberry-scented notepaper. The Brothers Johnson covered the song in 1977, scoring a top five hit in America.

Riding high, Otis – whose nickname Shuggie stands for sugar and was given to him by his mother – set to work on what would be his studio masterpiece. Mining rhythm and blues, paisley funk, neon jazz, meditative Latin soul, sweeping orchestrations and slick blues licks, topped with a succession of catchy pop hooks, 1974’s Inspiration Information took almost three years to complete, with Otis writing, producing and arranging every track as well as playing nearly every instrument, including early use of an electronic drum machine. Predating Prince’s sensual liquid funk by several years, the record was a kaleidoscopic, innovative masterwork that should have established Otis as a star. Instead, it was a colossal commercial flop that resulted in the 21-year-old released from his record deal and effectively blackballed by the music industry.

“I didn’t stop hustling or trying or writing, but, you know, there was no love.”

“It wasn’t a good thing when I heard that I’d been dropped but it didn’t depress me at all,” recalls Otis, now 62, speaking to Big Issue North from his home in Los Angeles. “Because of the popularity that I was receiving at the time I just thought: ‘I’ll get another record deal tomorrow.’ I told my dad and laughed and he just looked down. It wasn’t funny to him. But I wasn’t trying to be funny. I actually believed it.”

His confidence turned out to be grossly misplaced. Weeks, months and eventually years passed and still no offer of a new record deal arrived. “I didn’t stop hustling or trying or writing, but, you know, there was no love,” remembers the artist, sounding momentarily dejected.

For close to 30 years little more was heard of Shuggie Otis. The promise of new music was never fulfilled. Live shows dried up and despite offers to join the touring bands of everyone from the Rolling Stones to Blood, Sweat & Tears – all of which Otis declined – he only sporadically returned to the stage. To the outside world, it was as if the young virtuoso that BB King had called his “favourite new guitarist” had vanished off the face of the earth.

“People probably thought that I gave up and that used to bother me,” explains Otis, who admits to being hurt at some of the legends that have built up around him. “[Reporters] made it sound like I went and hid from the music or that I was afraid to be in show business, but that wasn’t it. I never hid. When I was offered a gig I wanted to play, I would take it and there was a time that I needed it. But even in those times – and this is no disrespect to anyone who ever asked me – I never wanted to be in anyone else’s group, especially someone famous. Because I wanted to make my own music and that was the bottom line. I was trying to find my own identity instead of being a sideman all my life.”

In a welcome contrast to the rock’n’roll mythology of the tortured genius, a la Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson, there were also other, more domestic causes behind Otis’s semi-enforced retirement. “I was happily married and I just got lazy,” confesses the affable father of two. “I had some of the best years of my life not messing around with music. I wasn’t crying about not having a record deal. After a while I could see that the industry wasn’t interested in my kind of music anymore.”

“I’m not going to publicise anything personal just to get somebody’s sympathy.”

Nevertheless, Otis continued writing new material and always planned to one day return to the stage. In 2001, David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label reissued Inspiration Information, but the death of his wife in the same year probably helps explain why Otis didn’t capitalise on the renewed interest in his career. Unspecified health issues have also prevented him from hitting the comeback trail sooner, although the artist politely demurs from discussing his personal life, or even what he did to earn a living in all the years he was away.

“I’m not going to publicise anything personal just to get somebody’s sympathy. I get a little critical of people who do that,” states the artist, whose conversation uncoils in the same circuitous, warm and languid style as his music. “Any time that I get off the subject, just bring me right back around,” he says with a chuckle, after one particularly meandering digression. It’s not always clear what point, if any, Otis is trying to make, but chatting to him is certainly an entertaining experience.

Reinvigorated on the back of a 2013 deluxe reissue of Inspiration Information (containing previously unreleased material from the past forty years) and accompanying live shows, Otis is at work on his first new album in over four decades, which he hopes to release later this year.

This month he visits Manchester, one of only three UK dates on a brief European tour. The prospect is one that thrills him just as much as it excites fans who have waited 40 years to discover whatever happened to Shuggie Otis.

“It’s the greatest feeling in the world. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do all these years. I’m as inspired as I ever have been. I feel like I did when I was 16.”

Shuggie Otis plays Manchester Academy, 19 February

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