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Album Review: Inspiration Information/Wings of Love by Shuggie Otis
Great, Based on 10 Critics
PopMatters - 100 Based on rating 10/10
True story: Already an industry veteran although barely legal drinking age, Shuggie Otis was asked to join the Rolling Stones. Famously, he declined the offer. Had he accepted that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, two things are certain. One, he would have become wealthy and a household name. Two ….
Known mostly via the Brothers Johnson's smash version of his psychedelic-soul fantasia "Strawberry Letter 23," R&B renegade Shuggie Otis recorded with heavyweights like Frank Zappa as a teen but fell out of favor with the music industry by his early twenties. This reissue pairs his metaphysically funky 1974 masterpiece, Inspiration Information, with a similarly spacey unreleased LP cut between 1975 and 2000 that positions this multi-instrumentalist as a missing link between Sly, Jimi, Stevie, Prince and Frank Ocean. Start with "Aht Uh Mi Hed," a beatbox symphony so uplifting you may feel your feet leaving the ground.
It’s an unfortunate trick of the life of a musician that a single cover version can supercede its original author’s career. One job of the reissue is to hopefully right such wrongs. Such has been the fate of Shuggie Otis, who, at the time of writing, has an All Music Guide entry with the album art of the band who took “Strawberry Letter 23” to #5 on the 1977 pop charts featured before any image of Otis himself.
By the time Shuggie Otis released Inspiration Information in 1974, he was getting a bit of a reputation for ferreting himself away in the studio. Having played live with his father Johnny’s R&B groups since the age of 12, he’d earned the chops to record his second album, 1971’s Freedom Flight, almost entirely on his own; adding production to his list of credits, Shuggie took three years over Inspiration Information before disappearing into the studio once more… And that, for almost four decades, seemed to be the last anyone would hear from him. In the intervening years, Inspiration Information became the stuff of legend, helped in no small part by its David Byrne-helmed reissue in 2001.
As Shuggie Otis never capitalized on his newfound success in the '90s, somehow incapable of cobbling together a new record in the wake of the 2001 Luaka Bop reissue of Inspiration Information, it may be easy for partisans to overrate the 2013 Legacy pairing of that 1974 album with Wings of Love, a new collection of material Otis recorded between 1975 and 2000. That quarter-century span should be a tip-off that this is not a lean, coherent, purposeful album, but rather a collection of every listenable thing Otis completed over the course of 25 years, and in that sense, it's pretty good. Part of its appeal is that it is so thoroughly out of phase with the present that some songs seem to date either much earlier or much later than their original recording (for instance, the title track "Wings of Love" feels heavily inspired by Todd Rundgren's 1975 classic "Real Man," but apparently wasn't tracked until 1990).
Shuggie OtisInspiration Information + Wings of Love(Sony Legacy)Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars Released to an apathetic audience and minimal sales in 1974, Inspiration Information has since gained cachet as a lost soul classic. It ultimately was Shuggie Otis’– son of legendary rock and roll band leader Johnny– final album of a sadly short three disc span. Despite a high profile 2001 reissue that quickly went out of print, little has been heard from him since.
Take a nighttime walk up Clark Street in Chicago’s River North neighborhood and be prepared for a detour into Blue Chicago. The small room has become a home to the city’s blues journeymen, old-timers who seem to just bleed sorrow from their callused fingertips. These are the Midwestern equivalent of Los Angeles’ Shuggie Otis. Despite his prodigious guitar talents and long-proven songwriting ability (he penned The Brothers Johnson’s 1977 hit “Strawberry Letter 23”), Otis has never garnered the appreciation his skills deserve.
Shadows cast long palls. We are often obscured by a singular event, a specific place and time, that comes to define us. Dwarfed by expectation and history, the weight of that moment becomes so burdensome that action must be taken. Some rise to the occasion, step outside of the dark umbra, and own their mark; others shrink further into the void, never to be heard from again.
"Shuggie Otis should have been a West Coast superstar, a genius, a musical wizard of the highest order." – Patrick Forge. Back in 1971, the Los Angeles son of blues legend Johnny Otis began work on his psychedelic soul masterpiece Inspiration Information. It was an album that looked destined to become a cornerstone in 70s soul, from a young man with all the right connections.
Best known for writing "Strawberry Letter 23," a hit for the Brothers Johnson in 1977, the reclusive Shuggie Otis surprised everyone with this 2-CD set: his final studio album, 1974's Inspiration Information expanded with four bonus tracks, plus Wings of Love, a planned follow-up featuring 14 tracks recorded between 1975 and 2000. Inspiration Information has been reissued before, and fans of blues great Johnny Otis' guitarist son might be familiar with its trippy brand of psychedelic rock and soul, sampled by OutKast, Beyonce, Digable Planets, and others. Wings of Love's first new music from Otis since the Seventies offers a time capsule of sound rivaling anything Prince has come up with at his most eccentric.