Search This Blog

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Another Living Musician I Love- Shuggie Otis

Shuggie Otis is one of those musicians that other musicians know about. He hit the scene at fifteen years of age. His background was quite unusual. His father is Johnny Otis, a Greek-American musician who decided to live in the African-American community. Johnny made this decision in the 1940's when it was definitely an unusual path for a white guy to take - and he married a black woman (illegal in many states at that time). I can (and will) spill about Johnny Otis because his story is crazy and amazing. But let's stick to his boy, Shuggie, for now.

As a teenager, Shuggie was acknowledged as a guitar phenom, mentioned by some in the same breath as Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King. But he wasn't satisfied to be just a guitarist - he mastered bass, keyboards, drums and vibraphone. He also became a gifted writer and arranger. Shuggie started playing professionally at the age of 12, using disguises to appear older (phony beards & moustaches, dark glasses, hats, elevator shoes, etc.) so he could get into nightclubs. When he was 15, he was drafted by Al Kooper to be part of the second "Super Session" album (this was Kooper's project after he founded Blood Sweat & Tears and completed the first album). Shuggie released his first album as a leader in 1970, called Here Comes Shuggie Otis - he was around 17 at the time. In 1971, he released "Freedon Flight," an album that was way ahead of its time - and in 1974, he released "Inspiration Information," his masterpiece. And that was really it - he started to fade as a bandleader/solo artist and and basically disapeared by 1980. He is still alive and well, hip hop artists and others are covering his fanastic tunes (remember Strawberry Letter 23 by Brothers Johnson? That is Shuggie's tune).

Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Prince and other trippy/funky/soulful genre-mixers owe a lot to Shuggie Otis. I often think that Prince deliberately copped all of Shuggie's shit. The Rolling Stones tried to hire this guy in the mid-70's, but he said "no, thanks" because he figured he was going to rock the world on his own. Things didn't turn out that way, but his music stands the test of time - still sounding exciting and fresh 35 years after it was recorded. Shuggie used drum machines in the early 1970's; he played almost all of the instruments on his albums, he incorporated jazz, blues, rock and R&B. It still is wickedly great stuff.
I think Shuggie Otis is still living in Northern California. He records on occassion and has played a few concerts. While he missed stardom and celebrity, he also missed the drugged-out evil scene, so he is alive when many other pop stars died before they reached 50.

No comments: