Photo Credit: Arnie Goodman
Independence and exploration have always been at the core of Los Angeles-based singer and guitarist Shuggie Otis' soulful music, from his early days as a blues-lick prodigy in the late '60s to his current resurgence.
"My artistic goal is to keep the momentum going with my songwriting, my band and my travels," says Otis from the road. "I want to keep moving and keep exploring sounds."
Born Johnny Alexander Veliotes Jr. in 1953, Otis started tinkering with rock and roll at a very early age. The son of bandleader, multi-instrumentalist and producer Johnny Otis, Shuggie grew up surrounded by all sorts of roots music. He received his first drum kit at age 4. By 11, he had acquired his first electric guitar.
"The Beatles came out just around the time that I started playing music, and they were such a sensation," he remembers. "I heard all those girls screaming—I thought that was a cool thing [laughs]. I initially wanted to be a drummer, but I found myself looking at and listening to the guitar all the time. I thought the guitar was attractive. My dad had an old acoustic that I'd plunk around on, playing blues, soul and rock and roll."
In his early teen years, Otis kicked off his professional career, filling in on bass and playing guitar onstage and in studio on his father's various projects. He jammed with friends and colleagues before gradually beginning to write his own material. By the time he turned 16, Otis had a solid set of songs ready to record. His father produced Shuggie's 1970 debut, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, released by Epic Records. The collection displayed his electric guitar chops and soulful style.
Freedom Flight followed in 1971, a warmly produced collection featuring the groovy love letter-song "Strawberry Letter 23" (later rendered as a radio hit by the Brothers Johnson) and the poetic tunes "Someone's Always Singing" and "Me and My Woman."
Otis admits those early studio experiences helped shape his fiercely independent approach to writing, arranging and producing.
"I record all alone, with no second producer or engineer,” he says. “I handle the board and the computer and the whole thing. There's no worry or agony… When you write and you're into the song, you're having fun doing it because you're inspired, but you are at work simultaneously. It doesn't become agonizing, ever. If it ever comes close, I just throw the tune away."
It took three years for Otis to arrange and record what many critics and fans consider to be his masterpiece, 1974's multi-faceted Inspiration Information. Otis played all the instruments, sang all the harmonies and oversaw all the production of the trippy, dynamic set. The sophisticated instrumentation and song structures reflected his budding fascination with experimentation.
"I started to really get into classical music a lot at that time, buying musical scores along with the records," Otis says. "I'm still interested in doing something orchestral with my band. My main dream is still to experiment with sounds… I'm not into being so musical traditionally with songwriting where you have a chorus here and bridge there. I can write a tune that hangs on one chord for 20 minutes.”
While Inspiration Information earned critical acclaim, sales were modest, and Otis drifted away from his deal with Epic. He chose to remain fiercely independent, despite several career opportunities. The Rolling Stones offered him a job as second guitarist after Mick Taylor left the band; producer Quincy Jones offered to work with him on a follow-up to Inspiration Information. Otis politely turned them both down.
Although he never officially retired, Otis spent most of the ensuing 35 years laying low in California. His genre-defying music re-entered the spotlight in the '90s and ‘00s, when his early recordings became favorites of the hip hop and R&B communities. Artists like Digable Planets, DJ Quick, OutKast and Beyoncé have sampled or otherwise paid homage to Otis’ music.
In recent years, Otis has quietly returned to performing, assembling a full band to tour the country in 2012 and 2013. Recorded in Brooklyn, NY, the 12-song concert album Live in Williamsburg hit the street in 2014 via L.A.-based indie Cleopatra Records. It foreshadowed even more musical activities to come.
Otis' current touring combo features Paul Lamb on bass, Albert Quon Wing on tenor sax and flute, Ed Roth on keys and brother Nick Otis on drums.
"With the band I had back in 2012, I wanted to have three horns, and I had a lot of ideas for that concept," Otis says. "As good as that concept worked, I couldn't get the guitar sound out there as much I wanted. I wanted to have it featured a bit more. Now, I feel as free as a bird, so I'm right where I need to be.
"This five-piece has a very special sound that's different from any previous bands I've had," he adds. "We're evolving. The chemistry is really good, and I'm very pleased with it. Audiences are responding well, and we're lovin' it. I'm praying that it continues in that way. I could do this for the rest of my life."
Otis says he's putting the final touches on a new studio album on which he plays most of the instruments himself with a few special guests. He plans to record another album with his new band in the near future.
"Spontaneity has been a big part of the [music] since our first shows," Otis says of his latest lineup. "We're not planning for it purposefully, of course; cool sounds just come up. Things come out of me that I hadn't even planned. I feel free to experiment with universal musical sounds.
“It's hard to put into words, but it's happening every night onstage and every time I hit the studio, as well. There's a freedom to the music that's being accepted, respected and loved by the audience, that's knocking me to the floor. It's so great."
WHO: Shuggie Otis
WHERE: The Foundry
WHEN: Sunday, Aug. 2, 8 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $18 (adv.), $22 (door), $15 (w/ college ID)