Monday, January 16, 2006

Shuggie Otis - Strawberry Letter 23

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Mr. Shuggie Otis
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Greetings all. And so we gather to begin another week. Nobody likes Mondays (except for the poor slobs who have Monday as a day off, a segment of society that I was once a part of). Either way, as days go, it’s something between the run of the mill and a colossal letdown. It exists to yank you out of the reverie of the weekend, and throws you back into the hopper with everyone else who’s unhappy about having to return to work. Note to the independently wealthy kajillionaires who read this blog: I know that the above doesn’t apply to you, but please, bear with us. So...as weekends go the past one wasn’t too bad. My son turned two years old, and we got to spend the day with my family, which was a lot of fun. We also got hit with some cockamamie half-a-blizzard that whipped a sudden helping of sub-freezing temperatures on a sluggish and complacent NJ that had become accustomed to unseasonably warm weather. Note to folks in Minnesota, Norway and the Yukon: We realize that 4 inches of snow and 25 degree weather isn’t really that bad, but we’re whiners. Anyway...I begin the week in a contemplative mood, and thus the record I bring you must in some way reflect that. I remember back in the day, when I was but a long-haired, Led Zeppelin-ized lad of 15, there came upon the airways a delectable slice of funky, stylish space-age R&B, that pulled my attention away from all things stadium and bong-hit related. That record was ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ by the Brothers Johnson. It was a Top 20 hit, so I’ll assume that those of you reading this who are of a similar age (in that positively molten 35 to 45 year old demographic) might be familiar with it’s silver lame/space suit-ish soul meets rock wooo wooo woooos, and also remember it fondly (I do). So many years go by, and David Byrne – a guy who’s music I don’t listen to a whole lot, but who I respect greatly – and his pals at the Luaka Bop label decide to reissue the work of a cat named Shuggie Otis. Now, I won’t lie to you and say that his name was completely unfamiliar to me. His father is none other than the mighty West Coast R&B master Johnny Otis (he of the Johnny Otis Show, “Willie & The Hand Jive”, “Watts Breakaway” etc), and his work as something of a child prodigy had made it’s way onto my radar screen (however faintly) over the years. Born in 1953, Shuggie was playing guitar professionally by the time he was in junior high school. He recorded sessions with Frank Zappa and Al Kooper (in addition to playing on several of his fathers sessions), and released his first solo LP “Al Kooper Introduces Shuggie Otis” in 1969. He recorded one more LP “Here Comes Shuggie Otis” before laying down the LP that yielded today’s track. So, back in 2001 Luaka Bop decided to release the CD “Inspiration Information’, which included all of the 1974 LP of the same name, and four tracks from the 1971 LP “Freedom Flight”. It became something of a hipster cause celebre, reintroducing the amazing work of Shuggie Otis to a public whose attention was elsewhere when the LPs were first released. That the listening public of 2001 should be so interested in a 30 year old body of work is telling. Shuggie Otis grew up surrounded by blues, R&B and rock’n’roll, but was also, like any other teenager digging the sounds of young America. Listening to the music he created in 1971 and 1974 (almost completely by himself, acting as a veritable one-man-band) it’s obvious that he was listening to all the right things, and combining those influences in a truly unique way. ‘Inspiration Information’ was also the first inkling I had that Shuggie Otis had written and recorded the original version of ‘Strawberry Letter 23’. Though the 1974 LP that gave the reissue it’s name is generally accepted as the better of the two early 70’s releases, ‘Freedom Flight’ definitely has it’s moments. Listening to the tracks on ‘Inspiration Information’ I was struck by the “sound” that Otis had created. There, in 1971, he was making records that sounded like a 2001 post-modern, home studio record crafted by a recluse with extraordinarily good taste. There, bluesy guitars stand side by side with hippie-fied lyrics, soulful vocals and the kind of vaguely psychedelic touches that were starting to pass out of the collective musical vocabulary as the 70’s began. There also were startling sounds (for 1971) like integrating a primitive beat-box into his records (he wasn’t the first, but he did it better than almost everyone I’ve heard from that era (Simtec Simmons, Timmy Thomas). Though the records aren’t “spare”, there’s a tasteful (and deliberate) lack of sonic overload on them. The vibe is perfect, but doomed in its day by being too soulful for the rock crowd and too trippy for R&B radio- which is a damn shame because the songs are excellent. ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ opens up with acoustic guitar and glockenspiel, before dropping down into the verse. Shuggie’s voice sounds like ‘Nashville Skyline’ era Dylan filtered through a much younger, more soulful mouth. When he gets to the instrumental refrain at the end of the record, he’s mixing what sounds like a pump-organ, glockenspiel, bass guitar, beat-box, jingle bells, and wordless “wooo woooo woooos” into a perfectly layered (but never cluttered) whole. When the acoustic and electric guitars kick back in to play out the end of the song the tempo picks up just a touch and the then it all fades out. When you listen to these recordings, and reflect on the era in which they were created, the initial impulse is to think of it as blessed out (i.e. narcotized) “head music”, but that really does it (and Shuggie) a huge injustice. There’s not a note on either of those LPs that isn’t carefully worked out and put into place deliberately. It’s just done so well that it carries with it an air of sunshiney “casual-ness” that’s hard to miss. After ‘Inspiration Information’, Shuggie Otis pretty much retired from recording and performing. He returned to performing (sporadically) in the late 90s.

6 Comments:

Blogger White Silk said...

I, too, caught wind of Shuggie's "Inspiration Information" by way of Mr. Byrne and the folks at Luaka Bop back in 2001. And, WOW, was I pleased at what I heard streaming out of my speakers - still am for that matter, whenever I throw this album on the player. In fact, I think I have either recommended or outright given this CD as a gift more than any other album over the past 5 years.

Great post! Hopefully more readers will become avid Shuggie listeners - this album certainly deserves all the attention it receives!

1/17/2006 10:11:00 AM  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

say amen. somebody!

when I was in high school, my friend's sister worked at a college radio station... she'd bring home all these promo records the station didn't want and stuff... anyway, that's how we got into Shuggie. He is WAY cool!

thanks bud!

1/17/2006 09:00:00 PM  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Man, Larry, I didn't realize that the great Shuggie wrote and did the first version of this. I really never paid much attention to the BJ version, to tell the truth, until just a couple of years ago, when the guitar player in a friend's band started doing it at their regular Sunday night gig back in Memphis. His name is Steve Selvidge; and his live version was way cool, too, and gave me a new appreciation for that tune. Thanks. I won't even tell you how warm it's been down here this winter.

1/18/2006 01:06:00 AM  
Blogger J Epstein said...

Let me add to the chorus - "II" is one of those perfect records, especially in the reissue with (among others) this crucial track. The CD was basically epoxied into my player for about a year, I couldn't shake it off.

Check out my take on it here (scroll down a ways):

http://home.earthlink.net/~jeremyepstein/music.html

Best,

-j

1/18/2006 06:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rewind to london circa '92. DJ Patrick Forge is on the phone telling me that i should stop by immediately and listen to a very interesting new find. The LP in question was Inspiration Information. I still remember the feeling of disbelief and joy that music like this existed, but until now had never surfaced. As soon as the LP was over we played it again, and again and again. I soon found my own copy and at the same time found Shuggies previous album Freedom Flight which contained Strawberry Letter. Fast forward a few months...a musician friend of mine had returned from NY after touring and being interviewed by Goldmine magazine. He had noticed that the previous months copy had an article about Shuggie and knowing that i was by now obsessed managed to get Shuggies telephone number from a member of the staff. So the only thing to do was phone the man up and tell him of his small but fanatic underground following in London. Shuggie was very soft spoken and somewhat suprised at his rediscovery. I predicted that in the near future his music would at last reach a wider audience. He seemed positive but unsure. I spoke to him a few years later and we both laughed at the fact that my prediction had come true.

Brother Marco, London Feb '06.

2/03/2006 09:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Logan 5 said...

My wife and I have been fans since we got that Luaka Bop reissue of Shuggie Otis a few years ago, but it wasn't until we read your article that we made the Johnny Otis connection. My wife is from the small northern california town that Johnny Otis has called home and done a weekly radio show for many years (incidentally it's the same town where Tom Waits and Les Claypool have resided - lots of musical character). From that connection we have just realized that my wife grew up with Shuggie's son, worked with him at a video store, went to parties at their house. She had always just thought of him as Johnny Otis's grandson.

And now it comes full circle as we enjoy California soul done so, so right by Shuggie Otis. Thanks for bringing us the full picture!

One final note: Shuggie's work hasn't gone completely unnoticed; he was sampled in the early 90's by the hiphop act Digable Planets and trip hop artist Skylab, at least.

2/06/2006 01:40:00 AM  

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