The story could be the centerpiece of any independently-minded musician’s propaganda program, really. Label misunderstands brilliant artist, leaving his masterpiece to languish in obscurity. Decades later, the record is finally released to great acclaim, rescuing said artist from obscurity. It seems too poetic to be true.
Shuggie Otis, a musical prodigy by any standard, released his debut record Freedom Flight in 1971. On the record, he played almost every instrumental part. The album was successful, and Otis began work on a truly unique product. His second record, Inspiration Information, was completed in 1974. But Otis’ label grew impatient with his extensive work on the album and dropped him. The record went unreleased.
Now the record has returned. David Byrne-owned Luaka Bop has proven once again its true taste in styles new and old.
Inspiration Information is incredible. The title track kicks off the record, and Shuggie’s ageless voice has crooned, wooed and serenaded you before you’re eight measures in. The song is a true composition; while P-Funk might lay down the basslines that sound so nice even if (or possibly especially if) you’re just humming them to yourself, Otis writes songs where the soul is in the whole, not the constituent parts. Few have comparable ability to make an entire band jive together. Fewer in soul write rhythms that you just can’t quite pin down and the melodies to fit it all so perfectly.
The record explodes all over the map after the opener winds down. Light congas, strings and wah-guitar back some truly tender vocals on “Island Letter.” The lyrics are simple, but the message so pure: “Did you think about it at all / or happen to hear my call / cause I didn’t get the chance to tell you / that I would like to see you again.”
After lounging here for a drag or two, the strings build into a beautiful rhythm shift. Solos follow, and then Otis drops one of the most delicate moments on the whole record. Just as the drums seem to be marching the whole thing off into the distance, the wah is back on the scene. The original groove takes over again, and as Otis’ fingers walk up the piano, the room spins.
From here Otis showcases some of his incredible skills at straightforward jazz guitar. Then he promptly introduces the record’s pyschadelic side with “Aht Uh Mi Hed.”
“Happy House” follows, easily the most creative of a series of short interludes in the middle of the record. The last, “Pling!,” is notable as well for its use of computer-sequenced drums. It’s impressive that a man with such skill on the drums would show equal interest in computer drum sequencing; many originally denounced computer rhythm parts as heretical and employment-threatening. Instead, Otis recognized the power of computers in sequencing rhythms with sounds not accessible on a trap. Even more amazing, he made loops that sound good. Otis did this in 1974; it took most of the world until a decade later just to make loops that weren’t simple electro formats. The beat on “Pling!” feels like vintage Prince, but the song itself is pure melancholy.
From here on out, the record is nothing but high points. “Not Available” drops the funk once again, and one of the record’s original singles, “Strawberry Letter 23,” is pyschadelic soul of the highest caliber. Once again Otis is spot on with truly orchestrated interplay between instruments and vocals. A country influence is noticeable here, which continues again on “Sweet Thang.” The organ riffs here are incredible, as Otis croons “Sweeeet thaaaaannggggg” over twangy guitar licks. Just how ahead of his time Otis was is really becoming apparent; Inspiration Information spans straight from Sly to Prince, forging its own path. It’s hard to believe the album didn’t turn heads in ‘74.
An extended instrumental jazz jam closes out the record, borrowed from Freedom Flight. The track is one of the less notable for its creativity, but the solos are nice. It exemplifies Otis’ only real weakness; his guitar skill sometimes leads him into extended solos which grow stale before the track moves on. Fortunately, these incidents are usually isolated within songs of their own. The standout tracks show just how much soul the man can have.
When Otis is creative, few can touch him. While many soul men tended to fall into formatted songwriting modes, Otis’ music keeps the soul hooks in the listener’s ear while upping the ante. The pace of the first and last segments of the record is perfect; Otis shifts grooves without thinking twice. The funk never becomes jagged, but he keeps the pop elements on edge.
Shuggie Otis is still around. After the quasi-failure of Inspiration Information the first time around, he contined to work as a session musician, doing occasional shows. He still has a band, but health problems apparently keep him from gigging extensively. Inspiration Information may not bring him back onto center stage, but at the vey least it brings the man the respect he deserves.