wed 23/04/2014

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

Shuggie Otis: is this comeback too little, too late?

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.

'Inspiration/ Information' 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

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Comments

I Could not agree less.

I Could not agree less. Suggie Otis is a rare breed of player easily and for many years neglected and misunderstood, which obviously in this reviewer's case continues apace. It was a shame about the sound problems, but as soon as the band ( contrary to this reviewer's observations) many of whom were much younger than Suggie (including the magnificent and one of the finest jazz drummers in the world Marvin Smitty Smith. The tightness and effortless fluidity of Otis's playing soon became evident. The blues was a treat to hear, as Otis is one of the finest blues players around. ( BB King thinks so too). His playing was secondvto none and some of the finest I have heard for a great many years. Inspiration Information is an extrordinary album obviously lost on this reviewer. It was a magnificent gig, in an intimate setting and it is very exciting to hear him playing after years of obscurity.

Yes I agree with James. There

Yes I agree with James. There were five songs from that album. Started with Inspiration Information and Island Letter, played Sparkle City and Aht Ah Mi Hed back to back, and the two encores were Strawberry Letter and Ice Cold Daydream. Although it is possible that the reviewer left before the end, in which case he'd have missed Shuggie's absolutely magical guitar performance during Strawberry Letter. I thought it was a great gig. Bit chaotic in places, but nothing that can't be addressed. If you want slick, go and dig out the albums!

Not a bad review

Not a bad review but: "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" ...this is simply not true. They performed the following tracks from that album: 1 - Inspiration Information 2 - Island Letter 3 - Sparkle City 4 - Aht uh mi hed 5 - Strawberry Letter 23 6 - Ice Cold Daydream and I think possibly even one more but the name escapes me, so I feel you review is a little unfair in that regard seeing as that is his best known work.

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