LIVE: Shuggie Otis @ The Egg, 7/26/15
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.
1971’s Freedom Flight was appreciably more ambitious, featuring songs such as “Strawberry Letter 23” (later a huge hit for the Brothers Johnson), “Sweet Thang” and “Me and My Woman.” Otis then took three years to assemble his masterpiece, Inspiration Information, a record that truly defies categorization, a record so good that it’s been reissued not once but twice (by David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label in 2001 and by Sony in 2013). It also may have been a few years ahead of its time – it didn’t sell to CBS’s satisfaction, and the label dropped Otis.
It was a blow that he took in stride – at the time, he’s since told interviewers, he thought he’d have another contract within two weeks. And there were offers: after Mick Taylor left the Rolling Stones, they dispatched Billy Preston to see if Shuggie wanted to join the self-proclaimed world’s greatest rock’n’roll band. He didn’t. Quincy Jones heard “Strawberry Letter 23” at Louis Johnson’s wedding and contacted Otis – want me to produce your next record? He didn’t. Aside from some appearances on his father’s records, Shuggie seemed to disappear.
Otis bristles at overly dramatic press accounts that depict him as a recluse during this era. He was married, had kids, worked to support his family, and indeed continued to work on his music. Wings of Love, a second disc appended to Sony’s 2013 reissue of Inspiration Information, contains highlights from this period of exile. Meanwhile, a new generation of artists was discovering his artistry, and Alchemist, Beyoncé, Criolo, Digable Planets, DJ Quik, J Dilla, OutKast and RJD2 all sampled Otis’s work.
Seemingly galvanized by the Wings of Love release, Otis has been treading the boards with some regularity since 2013, even adding to his slim discography last year with Live in Williamsburg. Otis and his five-piece band sauntered onstage at The Egg on Sunday night a half-hour behind schedule without any introduction much less any fanfare. This set the tone for the evening: very little chit-chat, no attempt to engage the crowd in banter, and throughout the set, Shuggie never made eye contact with the audience.
Fortunately the opening salvo of “Tryin’ to Get Close to You” and “Miss Pretty” proved sufficient to get everyone’s full attention. What a fucking great band! Otis’ terse but expressive leads were no surprise, but saxophonist Albert Wing and Ed Roth on Roland and Moog keyboards were equally accomplished, and drummer Nick Otis and bass player Nick Lamb were smart enough to lay down a solid beat and stay out of the way. Lamb broke out his brushes as the quintet eased into a dreamy rendition of “Island Letter,” followed by the bluesy “Me and My Woman” and a killer version of “Sweetest Thang.”
Music lovers love to speculate where Jimi Hendrix would have gone if he lived past age 27 – the beautifully orchestrated Wings of Love provided one plausible answer. All the songs were arranged to give the three lead instruments plenty of space, and Otis’s clipped, rhythmic accompaniment to his bandmates’ solos was as riveting as many guitarists’ lead work. Also notable was his dramatic use of pedal-driven effects, with a brief burst of wah-wah here, a dollop of sustain there.
The main set was over in 45 minutes, and the audience had to clap long and hard to win an encore. An acid-funk rendition of “Strawberry Letter 23” was pretty damn great, even if the hippie-dippie lyrics do reference “rainbows and waterfalls” (what, no unicorns?). Shuggie left the stage halfway through the final number, as if he had to be somewhere else in a hurry, leaving keyboardist Roth to introduce the band. Yet after the show Shuggie was sitting patiently in the lobby chatting with fans. Aside from a strong performance, we caught a glimpse of a very willful personality who’s unlikely to play by anyone else’s rules.