by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
Though he’s got just one major pop crossover hit to his name, the late bandleader Johnny Otis is nonetheless a major figure in the history of popular music, so much so that he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. As the leader of The Johnny Otis Show, he reached the Top Ten in 1958 with “Willie and the Hand Jive” (later revived and made a hit again in 1974 by Eric Clapton), but Otis – a former A&R executive for King Records – is also responsible for discovering such talent as Etta James, Jackie Wilson, The Coasters, Esther Phillips, and Hank Ballard, producing the Johnny Ace hit “Pledging My Love,” and writing Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Every Beat of My Heart”, the Fiestas’ “So Fine,” and Etta James’ “The Wallflower” (later a Number One pop hit in 1955 – under the title “Dance with Me, Henry (Wallflower)” – for Georgia Gibbs).
Perhaps even more interesting than Johnny Otis’ story is that of his son, Johnny Jr., better known by his nickname “Shuggie.” A childhood prodigy, Shuggie honed his skills by playing in his father’s band before being invited – at the astoundingly young age of fifteen! – by Al Kooper to handle the guitar work on his album Kooper Session: Super Session, Vol. II, which would generously be equally billed to both Kooper and the younger Otis, who was quickly amassing such famous fans as B.B. King and Frank Zappa, the latter of whom recruited Shuggie to provide the bass work on his now-landmark instrumental “Peaches en Regalia” from the album Hot Rats. Before long, Shuggie landed a record deal of his own with Epic Records, for whom he recorded three albums: 1969’s Here Comes Shuggie Otis, 1971’s Freedom Flight, and 1974’s Inspiration Information. Unlike his famous father, Shuggie never landed a pop hit to call his own, but that’s merely as a performer, mind you: funk duo The Brothers Johnson were savvy enough to include a cover of the Otis-penned Freedom Flight track “Strawberry Letter #23” on their 1977 sophomore album Right on Time, and the single would both top the R&B charts and cross over to reach the Top Five on the Hot 100.
Though “Strawberry Letter #23” remains Shuggie’s best-known composition, it’s the cult classic Inspiration Information that may very well stand as the younger Otis’ greatest musical legacy of all. Like most of Shuggie’s own records, it didn’t sell especially well, managing to crack the Top 200 but only climbing as high as #181, nor does it have anywhere near the same level of critical prestige as such other landmark R&B albums of the ‘70s as Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On, Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, or Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On, but the disc has certainly – albeit very quietly – left its imprint on countless albums in its wake, and it’s hard to imagine the likes of Prince, Lenny Kravitz, or OutKast existing without some of the sounds that Otis helped to pioneer.
Much, though not all, of Inspiration Information – which features Shuggie, a wildly gifted multi-instrumentalist who could shift from guitar to bass to keys to drums with ease, playing everything but the woodwinds – is built around the warm-sounding beats of the Maestro Rhythm King, one of the earliest drum machines and one which had already been introduced to the public in a big way on Sly & the Family Stone’s haunting chart-topping hit “Family Affair.” But Shuggie went one further than Sly and put together a sequence of songs that sounded as if they were actually written around the rhythms of the new technology rather than employing the drum machine as mere sonic adornment, and the results were mesmerizing, especially on the hypnotic and gently percolating “Aht Uh Mi Head,” which sounds distinctly like a fusion of Timmy Thomas’ 1973 hit “Why Can’t We Live Together” and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” The Rhythm King is also used to great effect on the calming sway of the languid “Island Letter,” the perky bop of the organ instrumental “XL-30,” and the slow and sultry early-smooth-jazz of “Pling!,” which for the bulk of its running time, merely consists of Shuggie playing warm electric piano chords against the backdrop of the Rhythm King. (At roughly the three-minute mark, saxophonist Jack Kelso enters the mix, but, like the other accompanists on hand here, like harpist Carol Robbins, he’s not there to play solos so much as provide fills and other little bits of ear candy to help keep the mix interesting while not distracting greatly from the mood of the cut.)
The lushly-orchestrated lazy groove of “Rainy Day” foregoes the Rhythm King in favor of a snare drum played with brushes, but the warm cut is no less captivating for it, the track playing like a cross between Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man soundtrack and jazz guitarist George Benson’s Good King Bad; it’s both downbeat and warm at the same time, cinematic yet intimate.
But the two most cutting-edge cuts of all here are arguably the title cut – easily the most infectious song here and the obvious choice of a single – and “Happy House,” the lone vocal track on the otherwise instrumental second side of the album. The smooth funk of “Inspiration Information” neatly foreshadows the sound of the duo that would eventually give Shuggie his biggest financial success as a songwriter, The Brothers Johnson, to the extent that it’s a bit surprising that George and Louis didn’t cover this song as well. (It would have made a wonderful addition to the follow-up album to Right on Time, 1979’s Blam!.) “Happy House” is merely a one-minute interlude that opens Side Two, but its acid-jazz-feel and spoken poetry makes it seem very much like an early precursor to OutKast, and the cut practically feels as if it would be just at home on Speakerboxx/The Love Below as it does here.
Sadly, the album went out of print shortly after and it wasn’t until 2001 that it finally got issued on compact disc – and even then, it wasn’t via Epic (or its parent company Columbia) but, rather, through the David Byrne-owned vanity label Luaka Bop! Epic more than made up for it in 2013, however, not only by re-claiming the disc but re-issuing it as half of a remarkable two-disc package entitled Inspiration Information + Wings of Love, coupling the original album with four unreleased cuts from the early ‘70s and an entire second disc of fully-realized unreleased tracks that Shuggie had accumulated in the decades since being dropped from Epic in 1975 and come up empty in his quest to find another record deal. It’s one of Sony’s most inherently fascinating archival reissues in recent years, containing one gem after another from a man who may have not always sounded quite in tune with the times in the years following Inspiration Information (even the archival cuts here dating from the early ‘90s sound as if they would have been more at place on the radio in the first half of the ‘80s) but clearly never lost his fire for music.
If anything, his gift for songwriting surprisingly only improved during his years out of the public eye, as the songs on Wings of Love are generally much catchier than even those on Inspiration Information, especially the slippery grooves of “Special” and “Tryin’ to Get Close to You” (both of which could similarly have been right at home on a Brothers Johnson disc), the peppy pounce of “Give Me Another Chance,” the chiming melodies of the lovely “Fawn” (arguably the prettiest song in Shuggie’s entire catalog), or the chugging hooks of “Don’t You Run Away,” while the epic, nearly twelve-minute long “Wings of Love,” containing some of Shuggie’s most blistering guitar work on record, is a goosebump-provoking piano ballad that’s equal-parts Todd Rundgren (circa Healing) and Journey (circa Escape, which, if you listen closely to the song’s piano part – which vaguely resembles “Who’s Crying Now” – and the Neal Schon-like heroics of the extended guitar solos here, clearly seems to have had at least a partial influence on the song.)
The positive response to the two-disc archival package seems to have recharged Shuggie’s muse, as he finally re-surfaced in 2018 with his first new studio album proper in an astounding forty-four years, the largely instrumental Inter-Fusion.