Shuggie Otis – “Inspiration Information” (1974)

August 18, 2008 at 12:53 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

Original Cover

Written Feb. 12, 2007…

Shuggie Otis was a genius.
If you’ve never heard of his name, then you have no idea how true that statement is. He is the epitome of the UNSUNG artist. Only made a few albums under his own name, including this, his masterpiece, and then disappeared into the annals of musical obscurity forever. What a tragedy! If he had died, it would be understandable for no more music to be released from the man. But how did such a talented guy simply disappear and at such a young age?

The only way most people know him is either by the fact that he was the son of R&B legend Johnny Otis (& played in his band for many years) or by his only well-known song, “Strawberry Letter #23” which was made famous in 1977 by the Brothers Johnson. But he was so much more than that. A guitar prodigy at an early age, rumour has it he was wanted by the Rolling Stones to replace Mick Taylor on lead guitar (he turned them down). He also cut sessions with Frank Zappa and Al Kooper. Shuggie was also an accomplished drummer and vibraphone player, and was one of the pioneers of drum-machine technology, along with Sly Stone and George Clinton.
This album was his third solo album & was his best. Only in his early 20s when he made Inspiration Information, he had total artistic control, handling almost all of the production and arrangements himself. A quite remarkable feat, as this was highly sophisticated music.
He also performs most of the music himself (except for horns & strings) – he was basically copping Prince’s one-band-man routine about 4 years early (he even looks similar to what Prince looked like when he first came out).
The album was short, with few actual songs. It was mostly made up of brief, strange instrumentals with odd titles like “Pling” and “XL-30” and had an unfinished demo-like quality to it but it’s a captivating listen nonetheless. There’s simply not a wasted note on the album. Unlike nowadays, albums used to be judged solely on quality, not quantity.
It also includes what is his second brilliant, timeless song (along with “Strawberry Letter”), the title track, which should have been a huge hit for him. It’s catchy, funky and brilliantly sung & played. Sadly, it was not to be. Some classic albums and songs have gotten lost along the way, due to record company indifference & lack of promotion. Sometimes the artist is just simply too far ahead of his or her time. But if you like Sly’s early 70’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On / Fresh vibe, as well as Stevie Wonder & later Prince, there’s no way you could not love “Inspiration Information.” It is the perfect summertime song. Like I said, this song SHOULD have been huge. A definite #1 single if I ever heard one.
Second song, “Island Letter” has a dreamy, introspective quality to it. Simply beautiful, with lush orchestration, which then segues into an almost-funky jam. Then an organ appears out of the ether to add to the mystical atmosphere. Very jazzy & spacy. It sounds like other things you’ve heard before but can’t quite put your finger on exactly where.
“Sparkle City” is a funky number featuring horns. Another coulda-been hit that never was.
At 6 minutes, it’s the longest number on the album, with long stretches of instrumental brilliance.
The strangely worded “Aht Uh Mi Head” (out of my head) uses a combination of real and electronic drums and is yet another coulda-been smash. Very catchy.
“Happy House” unfortunately lasts only a little more than a minute. This adds to the seemingly-unfinished demo-like quality of the album. As soon as you start to really get into this song, it quickly fades out. “Rainy Day” follows. A jazzy instrumental filled with Shuggie’s brilliant, introspective guitar playing. It sounds like a mellow summer day. You could definitely picture this being played in some movie love scene.
“XL-30” is a bizarre but enjoyable organ-dominated, proto-techno instrumental. Very cool. Shuggie certainly knew how to make brilliant use of space & texture in music. And he had an incredible knack for quirky sounds. I think of Prince as another genius who knows how to add to a song, by inserting cool, interesting sounds in key places. The kinds of things that most artists don’t have the imagination or skill for. But also to know how to add some quirky sound or little hook that will also stand up to repeated listenings without getting annoying. Few artists out there know how to arrange. It’s a dying art I think.
The ambient “Pling” is followed by the funky, jazzy “Not Available” to end the album on a high note. Like I said, this album is short and leaves you wanting more. But it also leaves you wanting to go back to the beginning and listen all over again. And again.
And that was it. Shuggie more or less retired after this album. He only made sporadic live appearances after that. Maybe lack of success discouraged him? Perhaps if he had come along a few years earlier or maybe a few years later, things could have been different for him. Who knows. But for a few years, whether anyone realized it at the time or not, he was one of the great ones. We are starting to realize it now (due to this fleshed-out 2001 reissue). Better late than never.

Jay Mucci

 

  

Reissued Cover

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