Shuggie Otis

Inspiration Information (Luaka Bop 74, '01) Rating: A-
Shuggie Otis, son of r&b artist Johnny Otis, is one of those supremely talented artists who can do it all. Unfortunately, he somehow slipped through the cracks, but thanks to David Byrne's Luaka Bop label a whole new generation of fans are finally appreciating this neglected gem of an album. Actually, the reissued version of the album is much better than the original, as it adds four essential tracks from his previous album, Freedom Flight. I've never heard either of his first two albums (Here Comes Shuggie Otis and Freedom Flight), or his scant output since, but this version of Inspiration Information is excellent, and is all the more impressive when one considers that he played all the instruments himself and that it was recorded over a three year period (his impatient record company dropped him while waiting for him to finish it) yet he was still only 20 years old when he finally completed it! Alas, for whatever reason the album didn't make much of a commercial impact, perhaps in part because it's tough to pigeonhole, and therefore tough to market. However, Otis' versatility is one of the album's greatest strengths, and though at times he reminds me of Stevie Wonder or Bill Withers, ultimately he's a true original, and this album justifiably received rave reviews when it was reissued. It's not quite a masterpiece, as the programmed drums sound dated, the lyrics can be corny, and the middle of the album is comprised of four consecutive instrumentals that kind of just come and go, albeit not unpleasantly so (much of the album is instrumental, actually). The album's high points are astoundingly high, however, beginning with the title track, which delivers easy going funk with an oh-so-cool, head-bobbin' groove. As with many songs throughout the album, his guitar playing is impressive, the keyboards flow organically, and his laid-back, smooth vocals hit the spot. "Island Letter" is a delicate, flowery ballad that still sounds fresh, and "Aht Uh Mi Hed" is simply wonderful; with its memorable tom tom beats, well-executed strings, and pretty flute, the lightly funky end result is intoxicating. There are other good songs even including the soft, often-jazzy "mood music" that comprises the middle of the album, but the album really takes off again on the bonus tracks, starting with "Strawberry Letter 23," which the Brothers Johnson took to the top of the r&b charts (#5 pop) in 1977. Otis' own version is considerably slower and in my opinion is even better. I mean, it's intense yet airy yet psychedelic yet poppy yet danceable all at once, and "Sweet Thang" continues with a sexy psychedelic soul number that's mostly instrumental aside from its cooed chants. "Ice Cold Daydream" then shows off Otis' not inconsiderable guitar hero moves before the album climaxes with "Freedom Flight," an all-time chill out masterpiece whose 13 minutes come and go all too quickly. Slow, sexy, and supremely sensual, this instrumental provides a long, beautiful, blissed out finale that one won't soon forget. To speak in general terms again, this album is filled with rich, trippy, lush, and funky yet laid-back psychedelic soul pop music that many feel was simply "too ahead of its time" to find a proper audience. Maybe that's true, but good music is bound to find an audience eventually (just ask Paul Pena), and better late than never I suppose for Otis, who at least has reaped the rewards that self-satisfaction brings when one's own work is highly regarded. That may not mean much to his creditors or to his bank account, and I'm sure that Shuggie must sometimes think about what might've been (supposedly he turned down an offer to replace Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones!), but though his career was ground to a halt soon after the original version of this album was released (due to a combination of business, personal, and health problems), at least he left behind this newly improved minor classic, which should appeal to anyone who loves laid-back, adventurous, and above all else, utterly unique and soulful music.

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