Review by Steven Stock
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Shuggie Otis’ biography raises an intriguing question: how could a musician who achieved so much at such a young age end up being essentially blacklisted from the record industry for 39 years? Otis’ brief but occasionally dazzling performance at The Egg’s Lewis A. Swyer Theatre provided some clues but no definitive answers.
Born on November 30, 1953, Johnny Alexander Veliotes Jr. first strummed a guitar at age two and within ten years was backing his father at club gigs, donning dark glasses and a moustache to avoid being booted by club owners eager to keep their liquor licenses. Dad Johnny Otis was a fixture on the West Coast R&B circuit, as a bandleader, disc jockey and impresario. The senior Otis is himself a fascinating figure, a Greek who said he was “black by persuasion.”
Shuggie (a derivative of sugar coined by his black/Filipino mother) was all of 15 when Al Kooper recruited him to play on Kooper’s second super session record, filling the shoes of Steven Stills and Mike Bloomfield. Frank Zappa invited Otis to play bass on “Peaches en Regalia” from 1969’s classic Hot Rats LP. This quickly led to a contract with CBS/Epic and a strong debut album in 1970, Here Comes Shuggie Otis. Guitar Player magazine quoted B.B. King calling Shuggie his “favorite new guitarist.” Soon Otis was playing with luminaries such as Richard Berry, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Etta James, Louis Jordan and Eddie Vinson.