Shuggie Otis - Biography
A musical prodigy in his day, Shuggie Otis has attained legendary status among crate-digging connoisseurs. The son of a prominent R&B performer, the multi-instrumentalist attained fame while still a teenager. After releasing a pair of albums that became widely coveted collector’s items, he disappeared off the scene, but a reissue of his ‘70s material reestablished him as a soulful craftsman whose best material bore comparison to that of such precursors as Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, his principal influences.
He was born Johnny Alexander Veliotes in Los Angeles on Nov. 30, 1953. His father was future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Johnny Otis, the R&B bandleader (born John Veliotes, of Greek lineage, in Vallejo, California) who stacked up a long list of top 10 hits – including the 1958 crossover “Willie and the Hand Jive,” which reached No. 9 on the pop charts – from 1948 on. Nicknamed “Shuggie” (a variation on “Sugar”), young Otis played guitar, organ, and drums from an early age. By the time he was 14, he was the lead guitarist in his father’s group, The Johnny Otis Show.
In a rare interview with Shuggie Otis in a 2008 issue of Waxpoetics magazine – one of the very few the musician has ever granted – he credits Frank Zappa, who regularly attended the Otis band’s gigs at El Monte Legion Stadium, with recommending the group to the LA independent label entrepreneurs the Bihari brothers. They signed the band to Kent Records, and released The Johnny Otis Show’s label debut Cold Shot! in 1969; the LP spawned a top 30 hit, “Country Girl” (essentially a rewrite of Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp,” a No. 5 hit in 1967 for the company). The same year, Shuggie played lead on Otis’ pseudonymous, XXX-rated “party record” Snatch and the Poontangs.
On the basis of their Kent recordings, the Otises were signed to Epic Records. Shuggie participated in a bluesy jam with keyboardist Al Kooper; Kooper Session (1970), the putative sequel to Kooper’s hit 1968 album Super Session, was subtitled, somewhat inaccurately, Al Kooper Introduces Shuggie Otis. With The Johnny Otis Show, Shuggie backed such R&B titans as Big Joe Turner, Roy Milton, and Roy Brown on the two-LP concert set The Johnny Otis Show Live at Monterey! (1970), cut at the 1970 Monterey Jazz Festival.
He made his formal solo debut with Here Comes Shuggie Otis (1970), a mix of blues, funk, and jazz elements that featured such sidemen as saxophonist Preston Love and members of The Crusaders. But he made a more indelible impression with the follow-up LP Freedom Flight (1971); in addition to the 13-minute instrumental track, which reflected the impact of such early jazz-rock fusioneers as Miles Davis (especially his In a Silent Way) and Weather Report, the album included a cryptic, rapturous love song called “Strawberry Letter 23.” In 1977, The Brothers Johnson -- LA funk siblings George and Louis Johnson -- turned the number into a No. 1 R&B hit, with jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour replicating Otis’ guitar work on the original. (The Brothers Johnson’s version was prominently featured in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film Jackie Brown.)
It took Shuggie Otis more than two years of recording in his home studio to come up with a sequel to Freedom Flight. Inspiration Information (1974) was a dreamy, largely instrumental collection – essentially self-recorded by Otis, with string and horn overdubs layered on -- that bore the heavy influence of such Sly Stone albums as There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Fresh. Despite the care lavished on its creation, the album only grazed the pop charts, peaking at No. 181.
To date, it remains his last release. Both Johnny and Shuggie Otis were dropped by Epic not long after the album was issued. Some opportunities presented themselves for Shuggie, but he chose to spurn them. He declined an offer to join The Rolling Stones as Mick Taylor’s replacement in 1974, and also turned his back on an A&M Records deal with Quincy Jones (who went on to produce The Brothers Johnson’s remake of “Strawberry Letter 23”).
Though Otis could be found performing from time to time in Los Angeles clubs, he had virtually vanished from the music scene by the end of the ‘80s. As he half-heartedly explained in Waxpoetics, “…[P]eople say, ‘Well, you must have had some personal problems.’ Well, I did. And a lot of them I’d like to keep personal, because they’re just life. Some might say I was hanging around with the wrong crowd, but that could mean anything, right?”
While Otis had removed himself from the scene, others contributed to the rehabilitation of his reputation. DJ Paul Heck passed a copy of Inspiration Information to David Byrne, who decided to issue the album (with additional tracks from Freedom Flight) on his Luaka Bop label, as part of its “World Psychedelic Classics” series. The 2001 CD reissue became a hip talisman, and Otis briefly emerged from obscurity for a New York showcase appearance and guest shots on David Letterman and Conan O’Brian’s TV shows. He failed to capitalize on the renewed attention with any fresh recordings, but his stature as a soul/funk pioneer is now secure.