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FEATURE: Shuggie Otis Interview
GLT blues radio

Here Comes Shuggie Otis: Again and Again

Musical prodigy and heir, the son of late legend Johnny Otis, Shuggie's early music influenced the likes of Prince and Lenny Kravitz. Always ahead of his time, the multi-talented artist has been rediscovered by generations of fans and has been hitting the comeback trail.
S. Otis

By James Porter

Long before teenaged blues artists became a "thing," Shuggie Otis was a precocious phenomenon whose talent demanded to be taken seriously. Born on November 30, 1953, Shuggie was all of fifteen years old when the world first heard him with his father, Johnny Otis, as part of the Johnny Otis Show in early 1969, on the album Cold Shot! At a time when the blues revival was in full swing, with plenty of originators and pretenders in equal measure, there was no doubt that this album was the genuine article.

 

Starting with Johnny, Sr. -- born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes, he rechristened himself "Johnny Otis"— he was the son of Greek immigrants who became entranced with black culture. Proficient on drums, vibraphone and piano, Otis gained fame as a bandleader in L.A., scoring a grip of hits under the name of the Johnny Otis Show in the 1940s and ‘50s, including “Harlem Nocturne,” “Willie and the Hand Jive,” and “Mambo Boogie.” A singer, musician, composer, arranger, bandleader, talent scout, DJ, record producer, TV show host, artist, author, journalist, preacher and impresario, Otis was known as the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues” and was a major influence on the history of American music. He discovered artists like Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, Big Jay McNeely, Esther Phillips and others.

 

Cold Shot! was his comeback album in 1969, after being out of music for some years. Delmar "Mighty Mouth" Evans was the leather-lunged vocalist who took the mic when it wasn't being used by Johnny and Don "Sugarcane" Harris, formerly half of the rock & roll duo Don & Dewey, who also sang a number or two on the LP.

Cold Shot! LP cover

And then there was Shuggie, the guitar wizard pictured on the front cover wearing a Nehru jacket and flashing the peace sign. (Mighty Mouth was the one in the Afro wig throwing the power sign with his fist; Papa Johnny was in the center, extending his middle finger.) Born John Alexander Veliotes, Jr.,  Shuggie started with the drums at a young age before getting his first guitar at ten. By his teenage years, he had progressed to playing in the elder Otis' band. After the fabled Cold Shot! album was released, he was sought out by the rock stars of the day, including Al Kooper (who generously gave him co-billing on the Kooper Session LP) and Frank Zappa (you can hear Shuggie's licks on Frank's Hot Rats album).

Freedom Flight CD art

Soon it was time for young Shuggie to step out on his own, with three albums that neatly charted the course of where he was musically. 1970's Here Comes Shuggie Otis was primarily a blues guitar affair; 1974's Inspiration Information was futuristic progressive soul. 1971's Freedom Flight was, musically and chronologically, somewhere between the two, with bluesier tracks like "Me & My Woman" sharing vinyl space with experimental tracks like "Strawberry Letter 23," which would later become a hit single in 1977 for the Brothers Johnson. 

Inspiration Information CD art

Despite this early promise (so much so that he turned down the offer to replace Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones), Shuggie's solo career never really took off the way it was expected to. His profile for the next couple of decades remained low, although some may have spotted him when the Johnny Otis Show played the Chicago Blues Festival in 1993. There were stories of record deals that didn't work out (including an aborted project with Quincy Jones producing at A&M), and to hear Shuggie tell it, at one point he was working a few non-musical day gigs. In the meantime, Inspiration Information became a bit of a cult favorite, audibly influencing the music of Lenny Kravitz and Prince.

Shuggie Otis

 In 2001, David Byrne reissued this overlooked platter on his own Luaka Bop label, adding a few extra songs from Freedom Flight. From here, the comeback slowly began, with appearances on David Letterman and Conan O'Brien's late-night talk shows. While he is said to be putting the finishing touches on an album of all-new material, in the meantime he has been performing regularly, bringing his incendiary psychedelic soul-blues-rock mix to the public. He last appeared in the Chicago area two years ago at Lincoln Hall.

 On July 17, 2015 he returns to Chicago, this time at City Winery. We caught up with him recently via e-mail, and here's what he had to say.

Q. Your father enjoyed a long and illustrious career. He was so successful and multi-talented in many different aspects of the music and media worlds. He got you involved at a young age. Were you intimidated by the prospect of following in Dad's very large footsteps? Or were you totally confident in your own talent and prospects for a successful career of your own?

Shuggie: No to first question. Yes to second.

 

Q. You were only 12 when you started playing with your father’s band and you had to wear a fake mustache and try to look much older to get into the clubs. What was that experience like? What lessons did you learn from the elder musicians at that time? Some of them were quite famous.

Shuggie: I never wore the fake mustache!

This was a deliberate deception which was exclusively designed by my father to add to the amusement of a teenager wearing disguises to mask his age so as not to be noticed as a child playing on stage in nightclubs. I did wear the black shades though! What an interesting experience living my early musical years in such a beautiful gift of light, and, beautiful dark, but viewing it solely in darkness.

My first solo album, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, includes a dialog by me telling stories about my first gigs. Actually, the entire script was thought out and written for me by my father.

Here Comes Shuggie Otis cover art

My experience as a youth who did have a family, two sisters and one brother, couldn't have been any happier. As time rolled on, I realized how fortunate having this accommodation was. Times were very bright in my toddler years. Things would change as time went on. The experience (getting the chance to play with some musical stars, and some not so starry), was very pleasant. As a small child I had been accustomed to being involved with the people of the night life, since my father's band and friends were like my uncles and aunts. I loved them all, and they loved me! Meeting some of those people was very, very influential in educating me as well as bringing to me a certain joy that I'll always cherish.

 

Q. Your first recording was with your father Johnny on his album, Cold Shot! What was it like being in the studio with legends like Mighty Mouth Evans and Don "Sugarcane" Harris?

Shuggie: Cold Shot! Was just that! A Cold Shot! If you hear the album, you might find it a bit funny. Delmar Evans a/k/a Mighy Mouth, and Don Harris a/k/a Sugarcane, were two of my favorite buddies. Comedic, eccentric, shady, lovable, exhilarating, and free! Just to say less. I'd shared many joyous, and wonderful times in and out of the studio with those two respectively amazing talents.

 


Q. After Al Kooper heard that album, he flew you out to New York to record Kooper Session. How did the two of you decide what songs to choose? And were you pleased with the outcome?

Shuggie: On the album, Kooper Session, Al chose all of the songs. I was quite pleased with the outcome.



Q. Your three solo albums progressed from being blues-oriented to progressive soul. Who were you listening to outside of the blues? I hear a lot of Stevie, Sly and even Todd Rundgren in Inspiration Information and half of Freedom Flight.

Shuggie: I was listening to all of the sounds that were reachable to my ears. As far as my favorites go? There are far too many to mention.



Q. You kept playing with the Johnny Otis Show during this time. Did you play any solo shows to support those albums? If so, where?

At that time I did very few shows. A few festivals. One was with B.B. King. One with Bobby "Blue" Bland, where he asked me to sit in. Then the band broke up.

 

Q. Your father had a label called Blues Spectrum, where you backed up the likes of Richard Berry, Louis Jordan, Joe Turner and other blues legends. What was it like playing with these blues legends?

Shuggie: I could tell you many, many, stories depicting my adventures with these entertainers, but I wouldn't know where to start. Most of my recollections often relate to how humorous many of them were, whether intentional, unintentional, funny, or unfunny. Some of them were truly comical, others were deficient. The memoirs of the good people, I will always cherish! There are also the cantankerous ones. They are usually outnumbered once the band starts up!



Q. After Inspiration, you sat it out in the late seventies and early eighties. What was your view of the music scene? Even though the Brothers Johnson covered your song "Strawberry Letter 23," did you feel there was still a place for you in the music world?

Shuggie: My father called me out to help him co-produce a set of R & B Oldies that featured many great musicians. It was a very cool easy going project.



Q. You played a great show at Lincoln Hall in Chicago two years ago. I think the world would love a new Shuggie Otis album with new songs. Do you plan to record one, and in what musical direction?

I am working on a new record right now for Cleopatra Records. It is all new stuff and in a brand new direction. I'm excited about it and it will be done in the fall.

~~~~

Historic videos on YouTube:

Johnny Otis Show w/ Shuggie and Roy Buchanan live. From 1971 PBS documentary "Introducing Roy Buchanan" :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al89UR2l3oI

Brothers Johnson perform "Strawberry Letter 23" live in 1977:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydRDzKu-_OE

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