Sunday, April 21, 2013
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SHUGGIE OTIS - INSPIRATION INFORMATION/WINGS OF LOVE
The odd thing is, we asked all these questions and went through this a decade ago. Inspiration Information was reissued in 2001, and everybody went ga-ga for it, comparing him to Prince and Sly Stone and Michael Jackson, and looking forward to new material and a resurgence. And nothing else happened. Otis, it turns out, has very clear ideas about his music, and has no interest in playing the games unless he gets to put out what he wants, his way. It's taken until now for him to structure a deal where he gets control, and gets to release his long-awaited follow-up album, here packaged with the original Inspiration Information from 1974. I guess that's what you can expect from a guy who's always longed to be a one-man band.
Otis was a child prodigy, playing drums on-stage with his father's band at age 5. Dad was legendary band leader Johnny Otis, the musician, bandleader, recording artist, producer, and discover of Etta James and others. Shuggie quickly became a hot-shot at several instruments, as well as a studio craftsman, and started making records in his teens. Al Kooper put him on a Super Session disc; Frank Zappa had him on bass for Peaches En Regalia. His second album in 1971 included the cut Strawberry Letter 23, which became a huge hit for The Brothers Johnson. The future looked bright indeed. By '74, Otis was recording almost completely by himself, yes, much like Prince would a decade later. Done over three years, Inspiration Information was his true coming-out, and unlike any other pop or R'n'B offering.
Perhaps it was the idiosyncrasies of his technique, and his reluctance to play well with others, but the album never took off. While there are tremendous pop moments, smooth soul with hooks and riffs to die for, there were also interludes, instrumental bits, and entire songs built around the primitive drum machine of the day. You just hear the hit album lurking inside this record, but Shuggie himself was not inclined to produce a polished, more accessible effort, like Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder were doing at the time. Even though he had no trouble with the funk and disco that would soon dominate the field, Otis wanted his next album to be recorded the same way. He couldn't get any takers.
That's where the second disc comes in. He never stopped making music, or he adds, making attempts to interest the record industry. But there was always a rejection at the end of his attempts. On Wings Of Love, we hear some of the original cuts from the mid-70's that would have come out, and we follow his progress through the intervening years. The guy still grooved, and still to his own beat. Fireball Of Love, from 1977, is pure gold, and could have easily been a hit in a couple of decades, and certainly predates the dance-funk of the Commodores. The disco groove is killer, and the guitar solos awesome. Remember, this is all from one guy. It is inconceivable that somebody didn't want this, and they probably did. I get the impression that Shuggie probably wouldn't have agreed to the contract. And I can see why any sensible record label wouldn't sign the guy. You'd want him to re-record vocals, for instance. The balance isn't quite right, they are too thin. On other tracks, the whole thing sounds worn out, like the tape has been overdubbed and played way too much, as he polished and obsessed.
But that was then. It's an old argument, and it doesn't matter anymore. With time passed, all this music can come out the way Otis wants it, and now we can choose to enjoy it with its faults, or consider that those very faults are an important part of what makes it great. There's so much to process; Otis was classically trained, wrote his own arrangements, brought in string and horn players when he felt. He was trying out new gear all the time, experimenting with synths as they developed, using all kinds of studio effects, and really piling on the sounds. Is it too much? Sometimes, yet it still impresses. It's a truly interesting collection, from start to finish, and quite the story too. I really haven't made up my mind if find it all excellent, but some is, and I have the feeling it will grow on me in the next few weeks. I'll certainly recommend it though, if just for the discovery.