The Invisible Man Shuggie Otis
BACK IN BUSINESS
Intro by Brendan O’Malley Interview by David Bonaventura
Photographs by Mike Selsky
Unlike boxers and policemen, musicians don’t retire. They might slip or plunge off the radar by their own hand or the inept machinations of a record label A&R department. But musicians don’t retire. Shuggie Otis is a musician, not a cop—no retirement, no gold watch.
Never heard of Shuggie Otis? No surprise. He’s been off the radar, invisible, for the good part of 40 years. But as one of the most sampled recording artist ever, it’s guaranteed you have heard Shuggie’s influence.
He’s been lauded and sampled by everyone from OutKast to J Dilla and Digable Planets. In Guitar Player magazine B.B. King branded him his favorite young guitarist of the early ‘70s, and later in the decade The Brothers Johnson topped the charts with his “Strawberry Letter 23.” Billy Preston invited him to replace Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones. He turned them down. Best guess is that Shuggie is the only guitarist to ever turn down Jagger and the lads.
Otis, son of the rhythm and blues bandleader Johnny Otis, was a guitar prodigy, but he didn’t stop there. An exceptional drummer, he immersed himself in drum-machine technology in its earliest incarnation. He played piano and organ and he arranged for horns and strings. According to friends, he was at least as good a bass player as he was a guitarist.
In his mid-teens Shuggie was being compared to Hendrix and the great Kings of blues guitar (B.B., Albert, Freddie); he became an on-request session guitarist before he could drive, appearing on works by the likes of Frank Zappa and Bob Dylan. The young prodigy went on to make two expansive, genre-defying, deeply probing albums, “Freedom Flight” and “Inspiration Information.” The records crafted as essentially a one-man band, staggered Sly Stone, gave the Brothers Johnson their most enduring hit (“Strawberry Letter 23”), and predated the stylistic fusion of Prince by half a decade.
There are few artists who truly envisioned music as a panoramic auditory experience: Hendrix, Sly Stone, John Coltrane. Shuggie has garnered such praise: “‘Inspiration Information’ is almost like a new style of music that could’ve developed but never did,” marveled Tim Gane of Stereolab. “That’s the problem. It never developed past this record.”
Shuggie has never struggled with his decision to turn down that offer from Stones and other high profile bands; he has lived a good life regardless. Nowadays he is back on the radar playing music for the fans. They never went missing.
Where some might see regret or unfulfilled potential, Otis sees a life shaped by the path he has chosen—the path he walks contently, doing what he loves. He is a musician after all, and musicians don’t retire.
Your music crosses multiple genres. Who were some of your major influences?
Starting off, as a kid, I would say definitely my father. I idolized him. His band would come over to rehearse and I loved to watch him play the drums. Now I’m talking about when I was a young kid—just a tot. He was my first and biggest influence. So music—rock and roll—was always there. It was part of my life. I didn’t really get into music—I didn’t know anything different, it was always there.
So when I was a little kid I wanted to be a drummer like my dad, you know. But I just kind of banged around on the drums. When I was a little older, in the late 50’s early 60’s, I listened to Freddie King, Chuck Berry, and Albert King. Then after the Beatles came out I wanted a guitar. It wasn’t the Beatles per se but the guitar craze. They made it even more appealing—I just wanted to play the guitar you know, play rock and roll.
You experiment with various guitar effects and sounds in your music. Who inspired your guitar playing style when you were young?
I was also into blues, so the main guy was B.B. King. When I was little kid, T. Bone Walker was over at our house and he told my dad, “You should get rid of the drums and get that boy a guitar.” So T. Bone was a big influence on me—and most other rock guitar players for that matter.
When I was putting my first album together I was trying to find and experiment with different sounds from everybody and anybody. I was trying to make the best album I could for myself at the time. Every time I make an album that’s what I’m trying to do. Please myself.
You do a lot of touring. Would you rather spend time in the studio or out on the road?
I love them both. But the connection to fans is the best. I love touring; I always wanted to tour. So here I am, I have a 9 piece band with my son on guitar and 2 brothers on drums and percussion. So touring with family is nice.
We are seeing places that I never thought I would see. I never thought I would see Australia. I saw some pictures of it, maybe a few years ago. Finally, I said, “You know that looks like a nice place to visit.” And it was. It was beautiful. We were there for a week. It’s really a great place to go and vacation. If nothing else, go there.
You know where ever you go it’s just nice to know you have fans. We went to Tokyo. It was really nice. Then we came back to the States and New York. We have been there several times—I love New York. We also played Washington D.C., Chicago, Toronto, Seattle, and San Francisco. We’re going to go out for another 21 days out in July. We’re going to play the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland. We’re going to Montreux Festival in Switzerland. Then we’re coming back here (United States) to play all kinds of dates, all different cities in the States.
As far as getting back in the studio, that’s coming around. It’s been a while—long enough where it will seem like a brand new thing. I feel like I felt when I was 16 now, at least in the head. I’m very excited about it.
Are there any creative projects you’re working on outside of music?
I have dabbled with writing stories. Short stories, some longer, mostly fiction. I like writing dark humor and dramas. I did a historical drama if you can imagine that.
If you’re a songwriter, it’s not that much of a stretch to be an author. Songs are essentially short stories. It would nice to get someone interested in furthering my story ideas.
You know, writing a song or story is a strange, creative process. Creativity can be a struggle if you let it happen. There is only so much you can hold in your head—you have to get it down on paper. I have at times overthought things or gotten too much into the details. If you force it, you can get stuck. I have found that it is better to just start writing; you know, just get on it and let the work flow.
Some say you have a reputation of “taking your time”?
I’ve not been taking my time. I’ve been waiting for somebody to come back to me. I’ve been sending out demos all those years, believe it or not. I have done things along the way; I just had not gotten another record deal. I have gotten more of a response lately. Finally, Sony UK called me in early 2011. They said they had heard about the album and wanted to put it out. I said, “Great!” They wanted to put it out as a companion album. I didn’t like that idea at first and I said no, but then I slept on it literally one night and the next day I went and emailed them yes. That album would never have seen the light of day. I’m very close to some of the songs on that album.
It’s a collaboration of stuff. It wasn’t a thought out, preconceived album, obviously. The next one will be a little less contrived, if you will. That’s what I’m looking forward to…next to touring…is getting into the studio and doing that album.
You chose to make your own music and passed on playing with some of the biggest band of your time – or anytime, most notably the Rolling Stones. Do you have any regrets about that?
Well yes and no. I had to pass on them because I would have been turning my back on myself, my identity, and my band; I had my own music. It would have been disrespectful to me as an artist. Sure, I could have made big money and had a lot of fame playing with another band—I liked the Rolling Stones, Spirit, Blood Sweat and Tears, I liked David Bowie, all of them were great. At the time it was an easy decision to make. That may sound strange to some, but not to me. You know, to be a sideman would have been a sacrifice of me and my music. I wanted to create my own sound. That was important to me. So as flattering as those offers were, I had to turn them down.