Shuggie Otis’s Inspiration Information isn’t the Dylan basement tapes or a recently unearthed Miles-and-Jimi jam session. The 1974 recording was only the third solo album by someone who was hardly a household name in the homes of the dilettantes who were making the news, so to cast Otis’s sudden split from the mid-’70s scene as a “disappearance” along the lines of the Jamestown colony seems a bit . . . willful. If anything, the Return of Shuggie seems to be playing like Banquo at Macbeth’s dinner table and leaving audiophiles from that time a bit shaken when it comes to explaining what might just be benign neglect, with some journalists offering that “there was just so much music in the ’70s.” (Others were dreaming of how best to immortalize themselves in a future major motion picture.) Given his pedigree, Otis should have had no problem becoming the “West Coast superstar” referred to in the reissue’s liner notes. Alas, it didn’t happen. One simple explanation might be that he was unable or unwilling to render his process and product an easy commodity for the cavernous maw that would become the heavily corporatized state of black music. It’s like Bobby Womack monologued back in ’71, recalling some record execs’ reaction to his own r&b: “One of the cats got up and said, ‘I like ya, and I ain’t sayin’ ya can’t sing . . . but you’re not commercial.’ ”
Later on in that same number, Womack says, “I came back and said, ‘Now I wanna sing something that I wanna sing,’ ” before launching into a version of “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” Otis did the very same thing—without covering Karen Carpenter—when he played an inspired set at his album re-release party at Joe’s Pub earlier this month. Jamming with a thrown-together band that included the eager Jimmy Vivino (from Late Night With Conan O’Brien) and Shuggie’s younger brother Nicky on drums, he rode through the hour-long session churning out convincing 12-bar blues, only occasionally turning to crowd pleasers like his “Strawberry Letter 23” and Sly Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” Perhaps at 48 years old, Otis is content to leave necromancing the Stone to D’Angelo and his many imitators. It was funny to see the disappointed faces on all the raw-boned white journalists who had come to get funked up.
That the re-release of Inspiration Information is being spun as the work of a genius of California soul is something of a feat, given its long-undiscovered status. The album has always been remarkable for its jewel maker’s attention to detail, and its reissue looks to open the official narrative of funk for a little reconfiguring. From the very sighing, aspirated syllabary it begins with, the recording explores a captivating kind of third-stream funk: sensitive compositions of varying duration, wherein fuzzy chords commingle with guitar jams by turns lyrical and meditative, all of it borne on percolating proto-drum machine patterns that add (rather than subtract) ambience when the sound gets tight-pocket. Many of the songs seem to begin midthought; others merely fade out and in to the next track. If the result sounds like an exquisite trip inside one young man’s (possibly addled) mind, it’s because Otis began recording the album at 19 and didn’t finish until three years later, having sung both lead and backup and having played every instrument except for the strings and horns. And he wrote the arrangements for those.
The music’s staggering production is exceeded only by Otis’s own storied mythology. The son of Greek American bandleader Johnny Otis, who helped transform jazz and r&b into rock’n’roll in the ’40s and ’50s, the younger Otis first played guitar on an album at the age of six in 1959. In addition to his own discography, he recorded with Frank Zappa and was asked to join the Rolling Stones after Mick Taylor’s departure (this esoterica dutifully gleaned from the press release). Though his “Strawberry Letter 23” gave the Brothers Johnson a No. 1 hit in 1977 and OutKast a melody for “Ms. Jackson” 23 years later, Otis himself released only a single album after Inspiration Information. He instead spent the next quarter-century in a semi-obscurity punctuated by intermittent recording, infrequent touring, and the occasional day job.
The album’s revival (along with a 12-inch remix of “Strawberry Letter 23”) by downtown hipster global-beat label Luaka Bop as part of their “World Psychedelic Classics” series places a very American artist in a very world-music context. Every year the international retro buzz seems to center around a single token act—in 1999 it was Brazil’s Os Mutantes (Luaka’s “World Psychedelic Classics” volume 1), and in 2000 it was Fela Anikulapo Kuti . . . admittedly a slow schedule toward cultivating a planetwide music palette, especially for a set that grew up listening to the Carpenters and not Bobby Womack. But regardless of how it plays in lofts and lounges from Chelsea to Greenpoint, Inspiration Information fits quite comfortably within that matrix, both musically and lyrically. As genuine funk documents in the shadow of Jimi and Sly, Shuggie’s compositions are both well schooled and insightfully unique, while his “psychedelic” lyrics read as textbook counterculture response—whether in Brazil, Nigeria, or the U.S.—to the sociopolitical flux that was occurring in the world during the late ’60s to the mid ’70s.
As a historiomusical conundrum, Inspiration Information poses more questions than it ultimately answers, and perhaps that’s one enduring quality of the best of our art. The album also sounds dope as hell, which is probably why we’re still rocking it 27 years later.