Shuggie Otis, Jazz Cafe | New music reviews, news & interviews
Shuggie Otis, Jazz Cafe
Seventies soul veteran finally gets around to playing solo shows in London
A decade ago I was wearing a T-shirt branded with the cover to Shuggie Otis’s Inspiration / Information album when an American woman approached me, loudly declaring “Shuggie Otis! His wife used to be my best friend! He was the worst junkie I ever knew!” I'd long wondered why Otis remained invisible – the 2001 reissue of Inspiration/Information on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label had attracted much media praise, but prompted no gigs or new material – so perhaps this was the answer.
It's an appropriate moment for Shuggie to emerge from the shadows. His three solo albums have been reissued, with Information/Inspiration due to be repackaged as a two-disc set alongside an album of new material. For the first time ever he is playing solo European dates (having, many years ago, played the UK as part of his father’s Rhythm & Blues Caravan).
Johnny “Shuggie Otis” Veliotes Jr is the son of Johnny and Phyllis Veliotes. His father is better known by his stage name – Johnny Otis. He dedicated his life to working with black rhythm and blues artists as musician, producer and all-around champion, launching careers for Big Mama Thornton, Etta James and the songwriting duo Lieber & Stoller among others. Shuggie was raised a guitar prodigy, and started appearing with his father’s band aged 12.
He looks very much the LA rock star with his sunglasses and swept-back grey hairShuggie’s 1969 debut album Here Comes Shuggie Otis found the 16-year-old playing the swinging R&B his father specialised in, but his 1971 sophomore album Freedom Flight featured a lush pop-soul sound that displayed the influence of Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield and Jimi Hendrix at his most cosmic. It wasn’t until 1974 that Shuggie released Inspiration/Information, employing drum machines and synthesizers alongside traditional instruments. The album became a cult favourite, not least with UK DJs Gilles Petersen and Patrick Forge, but while it's a pleasant listen, it’s not a game changer. Certainly not for Shuggie, who has produced nothing since.
Shuggie looks slim and handsome when he takes the stage after letting his six-piece band warm us up for 10 minutes. Dressed in an outfit reminiscent of a 19th Century US Cavalry officer, he looks very much the LA rock star with his sunglasses and swept-back grey hair. Things get off to a poor start with Shuggie seemingly unable to switch on his amp. Once this is sorted, the band – most of whom are veterans who could well have played with his father – offer solid backing while he dips through his back catalogue and attempts the occasional new song.
Anyone here hoping for an evening of Information/Inspiration-style jazzy electronic funk will have been disappointed, as Shuggie only plays three songs from it and sounds more comfortable performing old-school R&B of his father’s era or flashy rock guitar pieces. His voice, always a weak instrument, struggles, and his stage rust is evident in his problems with microphones and amplifiers.
After 70 minutes he vanishes, returning for a metallic rendition of "Strawberry Letter 23" after the crowd make it clear they expect more. Shuggie’s in better shape than such other would-be returning veterans as Sly Stone or Peter Perrett, but it's evident that he feels uncertain who he is and what exactly he should play.
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