The Mystery of Shuggie Otis


Where was Shuggie Otis all these years? Had he been making music? Was he cloistered in Northern California or hiding in plain sight in Los Angeles? Was his mind mangled from drugs, booze, or Botox?

Upon his re-emergence in January for a show at the Highline Ballroom, these were the questions long-curious fans had about the West Athens–raised, 1970s soul prodigy. He’d been celebrated and sampled by everyone from DJ Quik and OutKast to J Dilla; B.B. King branded him his favorite young guitarist in the early ’70s, and later in the decade The Brothers Johnson had a big hit with his “Strawberry Letter 23.” Billy Preston invited him to replace Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones (he declined).

Then, his moment disintegrated and he disappeared: no released material and few interviews for 39 solid years.

“I wasn’t gone by choice. When interviewers ask, ‘Why now?’ It’s, like, “What do you mean, ‘Why now?’ I didn’t have the chance before,” explains the 59-year-old born Johnny Alexander Veliotes Jr., at his publicist’s office in West L.A.The official answer to “why now” is that Epic Records is finally reissuing 1974’s Inspiration Information, Otis’s magic-lantern masterpiece of blues, R&B, and soul fusion. The new edition arrives with four previously unheard tracks and a second disc of unreleased songs recorded between 1975 and 2000.

He explains: “I tried to get another deal after Epic dropped me”—Inspiration Information was a commercial disappointment, charting at No. 181. “I got the door slammed on me at every record label you could think of, sometimes twice. After a while, it became a comic strip.”

Otis now lives in Monrovia, California. The paisley-age afro and incipient mustache from Otis’s teen years is gone, replaced by long, wavy, black hair dusted with gray, bundled into a neat ponytail. The ‘stache is thicker, accompanied by a goatee, soul patch, and puffy denim shirt. He no longer looks like a young Prince, more like an elegant pirate—especially onstage with a dapper cravat.

After a nearly 10-year hiatus, Otis has started performing live again. His recent local show was his first since backing up Mos Def on a 2004 spot date. It was well received, Depth of Field’s Patrick A. Reed calling it “an amazing show, a triumphant return from a long-lost master” and “everything you could hope for.”

Before you meet Otis, you encounter the myth: the vanished genius worshipped by crate-digger cultists and waylaid by the industry—a psychedelic phantom sharing a bloodline with Brian Wilson, Arthur Lee of Love and Syd Barrett. Otis has a sphinx-like elusiveness. He answers questions circuitously and describes himself as neither having nor wanting many friends. He’s generous with his memories but only to a point.

When asked if he worked a day job during his off years, he responds: “Some . . . but I don’t want to mention what they were. Not because I’m embarrassed, but because people still have those jobs. It would be like saying, ‘Well, I don’t have to do that stupid job anymore.’ I actually had fun doing those little jobs. It was funny. I thought to myself, ‘If I could put as much effort into my own thing as I put into these jobs, maybe I’ll get somewhere.’ So I’m doing it now. I’m trying the best I can.”

His son, Eric Otis—who is joined in his father’s band by his older brother, Lucky—describes his dad as “cinematic.” The elder Otis adds that he’s always writing stories and movie treatments. “Maybe three or four are good, possibly more—I’m being a little humble,” he chuckles.

This much is clear. Otis was born in November 1953 to R&B legend and “Hand Jive” king Johnny Otis and his wife, Phyllis. The Beatles hit when he was 10, and that was it. Otis was enraptured whenever a guitar came on TV, and the attraction only grew stronger when his dad took him to his band’s weekend rehearsals. Eventually Shuggie was given a cheap Japanese ax and taught himself chords. One year later,his dad brought him into the studio, and he became an in-demand session guitarist before he could legally drive, appearing on works by everyone from Frank Zappa to Bob Dylan sideman Al Kooper.

By day a minor celebrity at Washington High School in South Central L.A., at night he played clubs as the baby-faced auteur behind the bluesy 1970 debut,Here Comes Shuggie Otis. The next year’s Freedom Flight spawned “Strawberry Letter 23,” an auroral teenage daydream that only charted via a 1977 cover from The Brothers Johnson, produced by Quincy Jones.

Inspiration Information, his third and final record, landed in 1974 with little advance notice and no pop singles. After three years of relative seclusion that found Otis playing every instrument except horns and strings, the masterwork was mostly ignored. An unruly but gorgeous sprawl of cascading guitars, celestial falsettos, weird jams, drum machines, and drugs, it’s something of a hallucinatory blend of Sly Stone funk, teardrop psych-folk and Hendrixian electric blues. Otis says he took acid only three times, but one trip inspired “Aht Uh Mi Hed,” the most iconic cut.

“I was very depressed during the making of that album. I started out happy in ’72 when I started cutting the tracks, but when I started getting into it, my personal life started to get really dark,” Otis says, looking down. “I got through that album, let’s just put it that way. I was determined.”

He still is. Lesser men give up the ghost, get a job, or self-destruct. Shuggie Otis survived, even if he bears some scars and eccentricities. Preternaturally gifted, when he was dropped from his label he trusted the divinity of his talent. In addition to turning down the Stones, he rejected sideman offers from Spirit and Blood Sweat & Tears because he assumed a label with money eventually would swoop in and re-anoint him. And that’s exactly what happened. Kind of.

Otis became an indieground legend with David Byrne’s Luaka Bop reissue of Inspiration Information in 2001; this latest Epic iteration figures to introduce him to the Spotify set. His new disc of songs is suffused with enough flashes of genius to further burnish the legacy, and a world tour is planned for this spring. But even if his comeback disintegrates tomorrow, Otis insists he’ll never stop making music.

“I always wanted another record deal. I never ran from the music,” he says, making rare square eye contact. “Rolling Stone magazine said I retired at 22. That pissed me off when I read that. I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Who is writing this and why?’ Is it my fault that I retired because I can’t get a record deal? I will never retire. Put that down. I’m never retiring. I’m a musician, and musicians can’t retire.”