BY MICHAEL BERICK
Shuggie Otis is a man of mystery in the rock world. A guitar prodigy, Otis was playing in clubs at age 11, did an album with Al Kooper at 15 and recorded solo albums before he was 20. His best-known tune “Strawberry Letter 23” was a big hit for the Brothers Johnson and has been a sampling staple.
After his 1974 album Inspiration Information (which he basically made all by himself), Otis pretty much disappeared from the music scene for nearly four decades. In 2013, he re-issued Inspiration Information with a disc of music (Wings of Love) he had stockpiled over the intervening years. This live album captures him playing with a full band behind this reissue.
Listening to this recording, it is hard to believe that Otis was away for so long. Check out his expressive, extended soloing on tracks like “Sparkle City/Miss Pretty,” “Sweet Thang” and “Shuggie’s Boogie,” and you won’t hear a trace of rust. His singing too has gracefully, although it might not be as powerful as his guitar playing.
In concert, Otis and his band (complete with a three-man horn section) serve up fabulously funky, bluesy rock ‘n’ roll that makes it easy to link him to pioneering acts such as Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix as well as seeing his influence on performers like Prince. These live renditions might trim down Otis’ studio psychedelia but there is still a trippy vibe to the way he blends fierce guitar playing with laidback soul grooves.
While Otis’ song catalogue might not hold as many hits as Sly, Jimi or Prince, there are some real gems among this disc’s dozen tracks. “Inspiration Information,” “Aht Uh Mi Hed” and the “newer” tune “Tryin’ To Get Close To You” are particular standout tracks here. Not surprisingly, he saves “Strawberry Letter 23” for last. Somewhat surprisingly, however, he doesn’t turn it into a big funky jam but it still remains a sweet love note.
With the musical prowess that the 60-something Otis displays on this live recording, it makes one curious for his next project, which hopefully won’t be decades in the making.