BY MICHAEL TOLAND
The son of R&B bandleader/talent scout Johnny Otis, Shuggie Otis first came to notice when recruited and recorded by Al Kooper for the blues-oriented follow-up to the successful Super Session LP. But his lasting legacy is the song “Strawberry Letter 23,” a brilliant acid soul tune from the album Freedom Flight made into an unlikely hit by the Brothers Johnson. There was more where that came from, however, as various reissues of Otis’ scant discography attest. This two-disk set puts Flight’s follow-up together with a disk of previously unissued recordings spanning a quarter of a century.
His third and, until now, final album, 1974’s Inspiration Information (reissued once before by David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label in 2001) takes the jazzy, psych-tinged grooves of “Strawberry Letter 23” and runs with them. Mellow melodies flow over spacious rhythms, as the multi-instrumental singer/songwriter drops just enough pink smoke into the airy arrangements to avoid easy listening fatigue. The hipswinging rhythms of “Sparkle City,” “Not Available” and the title share space with Otis’ smooth tenor, while his guitar takes the music into space. “Rainy Day,” “XL-30” and “Pling!” drop vocals and words for light instrumentals that would float off into the ether, were it not for the clanking (and pioneering) drum machine rhythms giving them wings. “Aht Uh Mi Hed” mixes the drumbox and a poppy melody with an odd mix of anxious singing and whimsical words – it’s exactly the kind of quirky accomplishment that prevents mass stardom but ensures long shelf life, which is a fair description of Otis’ career in general. This edition includes three unreleased tunes recorded in 1971, highlighted by the bluesy funk mash note “Miss Pretty,” plus the hazy 1977 ballad “Things We Like to Do.”
Wings of Love compiles unreleased recordings made over the course of 25 years. Otis refines his distinctive approach to psychedelic soul on “Doin’ What’s Right,” “Destination You!” and “Give Me Something Good,” all recorded in the mid-70s. In a precursor to the sounds of the 80s, lush synthesizers figure heavily in the arrangements of “Don’t You Run Away” and “Tryin’ to Get Close to You,” though they don’t whitewash the other instruments. Speaking of the Reagan years, Otis represents with the funky “Special,” the sweeping “Give Me a Chance” (with its burning guitar solo), the poptastic “If You’d Be Mine” and the devotional “Fawn,” all of which manage to bespeak their era without drowning in it. The title cut is a lush epic, part Leroy Hutson slow jam and part psych soul anthem, taken out by some fleet-fingered six-string wizardry. Written in 1978 and recorded live in 2000, “Black Belt Sheriff” returns Otis to his roots with an introspective country blues that highlights his musical skill in every aspect.
As exhibit A in a case made that Shuggie Otis is an overlooked talent, Inspiration Information + Wings of Love present powerful evidence. As a record full of shiny nuggets of grade-A psychedelic soul, it’s worth every spin as well.
DOWNLOAD: “Inspiration Information,” “Aht Um Mi Hed,” “Don’t You Run Away”