Welcome to Timeless Affairs, the corner within Steppin' Into Tomorrow, where we shine a spotlight on essential albums that have shaped our culture (and lives in many cases). We lovingly revisit, explore and zoom in on these gems in their full length. Digging out stories and fun facts from the making of the masterpieces that have built the foundation of the music today and continue to shape the future.
It's Shuggie Otis' birthday today, so we felt it's only right to take this opportunity to revisit his 1974 masterpiece 'Inspiration Information' and shine light on his legacy. Although he's widely known mainly for his 'Strawberry Letter 23' and 'Inspiration Information', there's a lot more to his story in the realm of music that speaks volumes when it comes to authenticity and just pure love for music.
Johnny 'Shuggie' Otis was born in L.A. in 1953, to a musical family. His father, Johnny Otis was a multitalented musician himself, a rhythm & blues pioneer (singer, bandleader, composer, record producer, author, TV show host, deejay...) who discovered and produced the likes of Big Mama Thornton, Etta James, Jackie Wilson and many more. Little Shuggie (short for "sugar") was witness to many rehearsals in their living room with these legends, recording sessions in the 8-track studio his dad had in the garage, so quite naturally, he quickly started gravitating to music himself. Shuggie picked up drums first as a kid, at 11 he switched to guitar and at 12 he was already playing on a few songs his dad produced, playing band gigs with his dad (sometimes having to put on a hat, dark glasses & fake mustache for late night gigs). Below is a clip of teenage Shuggie backing up Roy Buchanan with his dads band in 1971. It's quite possible that Shuggie did his 10.000 hours even before he turned 18.
Later playing with Frank Zappa (who was a big fan of both of the Otis's), meeting Al Kooper and featuring on Vol. 2 of Kooper Session when he was only 15. He released his first solo release 'Here Comes Shuggie Otis' at 17, in close collaboration with his dad. His second, very successful 'Freedom Flight' album with the famous song 'Strawberry Letter 23' came a year later, which went on to be covered by Brothers Johnson (produced by Quincy Jones). Epic (the label that released both albums), gave the Otis's funding to build their own 16-track studio at this time in their backyard - Hawk Sound.
Shuggie now picked up all of the engineering, producing, and mixing duties, wrote and played everything on his own - in the 70s, at a time when it was very unorthodox to do so. It's probably safe to say that Shuggie might have been one of the first bedroom producers ever. Having this space, equipment and time to really explore his craft, and be led by his inspiration and gut feeling wherever it takes him. The result was a very personal 1974 release 'Inspiration Information'. Except for a few guests on the strings, harp & horn parts (sax, flutes, trumpets, trombones, french horn), Shuggie played all of the instruments on this album (guitars, bass, organ, piano, vibes & percussion), handled almost all of the production and arrangements, assuming complete artistic control for the first time.
From the liner notes:
"Information belongs to the mind. It can be gathered, coded, processed, and decoded, and used for any number of purposes. Inspiration comes from the soul. It is an elusive spark. One that cannot be bought or sold, nor artificially triggered. It is a gift. - Winston Cenac"
Starting off with the joyful tune'Inspiration Information', the album is bound to put an instant smile on your face with every listen. The more listens, the more influences you hear in the sound, the songwriting... For example, the drum machine in 'Aht Uh Mi Hed' to me is sort of reminiscent of 'Why Can't We Live Together', the Digable Planets' sample on 'Island Letter', the Jaylib sample on 'Unavailable', 'Sparkle City' intro & break, the Beyoncé sample on 'Rainy Day'... there are so many elements on here that make you really want to put your headphones on, and listen to the entire project top to bottom, no skips. Now, since I have the record that was re-released in 2001 by David Byrne from the Talking Heads, this one also contains a few songs from 'Freedom Flight', including 'Strawberry Letter 23', which originally wasn't part of this release. Hearing that song sort of reminds me of Outkasts 'Ms. Jackson' & Justin's 'Señorita' with the so very distinctive interpolation of melodies.
This album is Shuggie coming into his own after many years of hard work, making music in the 70s, a time whose conflicts were shaped by information and the very lack of it at the same time. And although the reception of it wasn't nearly as strong as with the previous release, this album is a masterpiece ahead of its time.
Shuggie got dropped from his label after this release, and proceeded to decline offers from Billy Preston, who asked him to join Rolling Stones world tour, David Bowie, Buddy Miles and Quincy Jones, who wanted to produce his next album. Staying true to himself, Shuggie refused to conform to industry expectations.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY SHUGGIE
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