A FEW MINUTES WITH… Shuggie Otis
Interview and story by Don Wilcock
“I make my own rules and regulations, and if someone wants to call me crazy, fine with me because I’ve been called that all my life ever since junior high school.”
You can understand why Shuggie Otis – who headlines The Egg in Albany at 7:30pm on Sunday (July 26) – is a bit defensive. Two years ago, Epic Records re-released Inspiration Information, 40 years after the child prodigy first put it out as his third album. Epic packaged it with a second CD, Wings of Love, containing a collection of songs written and produced in the intervening four decades.
While the press lauded the work, no less an authority than The New York Times labelled Shuggie “an R&B Brian Wilson or Syd Barrett.” For decades Wilson, the Beach Boys’ creative head and heart, was painted as a psychological basket case, and faced with similar issues, Syd Barrett dropped out of Pink Floyd long before that band hit its zenith.
To some music journalists, an artist’s degree of sanity is measured in how many CDs he sells. If they’re creative and top the charts, they’re eccentric geniuses like Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and Prince, each of whom owes a bow to Shuggie as an influence. But if you’re more focused on your art, don’t have a businessman behind you, and you don’t score a recording contract for 40 years, well, you must be crazy.
While still a teenager, Shuggie had performed and recorded with Frank Zappa, Etta James, Eddie Vinson, Louis Jordan and Bobby “Blue” Bland. The son of Johnny Otis, the Godfather of R&B, who produced Big Mama Thorton’s “Hound Dog” three years before Elvis made it a hit, Shuggie was groomed for stardom by his father. Some have called his dad overprotective.
“I agree with it totally,” says Shuggie today. “The thing of it is he never held me back. He would always ask me what I wanted to do with no implications, no suggestions at all, totally objective, and what do you want to do? He always gave me freedom which as one of the greatest things about my dad because while he was schooling me, at the same time I guess he knew because I wanted to voice it when I was 13 or 14, 15. By 16, I knew I wanted to have my own group, and I wanted to be successful, and I wanted to move out of the house. I told both my parents it would be a while before any of that would happen, but all and all life is life, and there’s ups and downs.”
“(My mother) was a completely different personality from my father. Ha, it has to be funny. It’s like night and day. My mother’s black, and my father’s white. Ha, ha. Ha. The dark one’s light, and the light one’s dark. It’s not like she would let me have my way with everything. If there was something she didn’t like about what I was doing, she would get utterly pissed off. So she was really the one – I would hate to see her get mad more than my father.
“Both of my parents loved us, and they stayed together. They were married from the ages of 18 and 19. They eloped and my father was 91 when he passed away. They never thought about breaking up ever. They were in love.”
It’s always the artists who set a beat by a different drummer who change the paradigm of music. Shuggie has done just that, but most people have only heard his contributions through the sounds of artists he’s influenced who have gone on to become more famous.
“I want to get into different styles to put my own thing into it. Definitely, I don’t ever want to sound like somebody else. So I’m glad that I have a different sound I’m blessed as far as that’s concerned. I have a different sounding voice. My guitar I know I have a different style. No one is totally original. I listen to other people’s music more than mine, but now I’m starting to listen to mine more than anyone which is a good thing. It’s about time.”
Shuggie channels creativity. “I’m always alone when I write. I can’t write with someone else in the room, and I live alone now as well. You’re in the room, and when you’re in the moment, as they say, when the creativity is coming out and you have a good idea that you think there could be a song, there’s other entities, spirits, beings, things – whatever you want to call it. Sometimes there’s people who have died and gone on, and they’re in the room with me. And they’re helping me along with the song.
“All of a sudden, I’m writing a song, and I’m not even thinking about it, and then I’ll say, “Oh, yes. This is the kind of groove I want to get into, and all of a sudden I’m actually getting that groove going. It’s like they’re with me. They’re actually helping me write the song. So I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I wrote that. That’s all blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’”
Mercurial? Yes! Enigmatic? For sure! Reclusive? Not any more! Crazy? Go see him at The Egg, and see if you don’t agree. His kind of crazy makes for great listening…