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Music Review: Shuggie Otis – Inspiration Information/Wings of Love

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Any one of Shuggie Otis’ resume items would cement his place in rock and roll history: playing in the band (disguised to look older with shades and painted-on ‘stash) of his famed father, Johnny Otis, at age 12; recording a “Super Session” album with Al Kooper at 15; playing bass on Frank Zappa’s “Peaches en Regalia” at 16; receiving offers to join Blood, Sweat & Tears, Spirit, and the Rolling Stones before he was out of his twenties. Shuggie turned down all those offers because, so sure was he of his prospects as a solo artist, he couldn’t see himself as a mere band member. Even if that band was the Stones.

With that level of confidence, the 19-year-old Shuggie Otis embarked on making the kind of solo album only the likes of McCartney, Rundgren, and Roy Wood would attempt. Other than the reed, horn, and string parts, which he arranged, Otis played and sang every part on the album he began recording in 1971. Three years later, the nine songs he crafted were released by Epic Records, as Inspiration Information.

Shuggie Otis - Inspiration Information-Wings of Love (Album Cover)Although the protracted production time suggests that Shuggie struggled with the one-man band approach to record-making, he says, “it didn’t take that long to record.” Recording was slowed while he continued to tour and record with his father’s band, in addition to moving operations to the studio the elder Otis had his label build at their home. The freedom afforded to Shuggie by the home facility removed the urgency imposed by costly studio time and encouraged him to indulge his urge to experiment with his songwriting and arrangements.

Through some confluence of artistic freedom, youthful ambition, and unbridled talent, the resulting album is a cultishly revered set of soulful rock, an accomplished work that liner note author, Chris Campion, calls, “as perfect as an album can be.” That bit of hyperbole aside, Inspiration Information possessed a timeless quality, its tracks reflecting the many elements of rock, soul, blues, and jazz that influenced Otis. The no-rules atmosphere of the ’60s hangs over Shuggie’s experimentation with meandering, psych-influenced melodies and arrangements that are a melting pot of all the pop music genres he knew, including film music – he studied composition with Albert Harris, a guitarist with extensive experience scoring films.

The title track is an easygoing groove that flows along effortlessly while sinking in its subtle hooks. “Island Letter” weaves a hypnotic spell with its swirling guitar lines and tropical drum machine pattern. The understated funk and walking bass of “Sparkle City” sounds like the laid-back cousin of the Stevie Wonder/Rufus/Chaka Khan hit “Tell Me Something Good.”

Otis himself has cited “Aht Uh Mi Hed” as the result of his desire to experiment with more abstract lyrics – as an indication of his success, the song was analyzed in the journal, New England Review, vol. 31 no. 4 – and the experimentation didn’t end with the words. Over a Rhythm Master-programmed beat and pulsing organ chords, strings dart in and out around Shuggie’s (mostly) languorous vocal, creating a uniquely narcotic feel.

On the original LP, the album’s second side comprised four instrumentals, each as innovative and listenable as the vocal tracks on side one. The moody “Rainy Day” showcases Shuggie’s jazzy guitar soloing, sounding like a more-soulful “Pet Sounds.” “XL-30” mixes spacey organ effects (a Farfisa through an Echoplex) over a bossa nova beat, while “Pling!” produces a dreamy effect using airy electric piano and cool sax. The meandering “Not Available” ended the original album with more of Otis’ jazziest guitar runs over cinematic strings and flute.

This new release adds the first music Otis has released since 1974, 18 previously-unreleased tracks, recorded from 1975—2000. Four of these are appended to Inspiration Information, and are, possibly excepting the aimless “Castle Top Jam,” nearly as good as what precedes them, although their inclusion undermines the “vocal side/instrumental side” flow.

After nearly four decades of drought, the expectations for new music from Shuggie Otis, offered here as the Wings of Love album, were bound to be low and disappointing. Due to his long absence from the scene, songs like the Prince-like “Special” come across as somewhat dated and derivative. We’ve heard so much that was influenced by Otis in the interim, it’s become impossible to separate the master from the adherent.

Not to say Wings isn’t a solid, enjoyable album. Throughout it, there are touches like the “spongy” guitar of “Special,” the frenetic keyboard work on “Give Me Something Good,” and the soaring guitar solos of the title track that are reminiscent of Otis’ earlier work. “Tryin’ To Get Close To You” finds Shuggie imagining how the Brothers Johnson would cover this song, giving it the same percolating feel of their hit version of his “Strawberry Letter #23” the following year. And it’s got to be said that there is nothing as unique and sublimely buoyant as “Strawberry Letter 23” on either of this set’s albums; that sort of lightning is not likely to strike twice in anyone’s career.

If you don’t already own Inspiration Information – the 2001 Luaka Bop reissue is out of print – definitely get this set, even if Wings of Love seems more like a bunch of bonus tracks than a genuine follow-up album.

Inspiration Information is a feel-good album for the ages, the flip-side of its contemporary, Sly & The Family Stone’s dark, murky masterpiece, There’s A Riot Goin’ On, and equally important to any record collection.

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About James A. Gardner