Shuggie Otis – Inspiration Information / Wings Of Love (album review)

This newly issued, deluxe two-disc set collects Shuggie Otis’ 1974 masterpiece, Inspiration Information, as well as a second disc of previously unreleased material recorded between 1975 and 2000. For many, this set will serve as an introduction to the musician who – for all the critical acclaim, noted influence on peers such as Sly Stone and Prince, and cult-ish admiration from existing Otis converts – was never quite able to channel his obvious talents into the commercial success he probably deserved.

Otis got his start in the music industry at the age of sixteen, playing rhythm guitar on Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats. Before he was twenty, the blues guitar prodigy had racked up two albums with Al Kooper and found himself signed to Columbia, recording from the comfort of his own studio. Inspiration Information dropped in 1974, following the modest successes of Otis’ solo debut, Here Comes Shuggie Otis and the sophomoric Freedom Flight. The album is a hazy tapestry of smooth California funk; jazz instrumentals, flirtations with electronica that were at least 20 years ahead of their time, and acid-tinged psychedelia. The album was quickly likened to the works of Stevie Wonder and the Isley Brothers, and was a profound influence on Sly Stone.

The title track builds on a funk rhythm, introducing Booker T-styled organ, a bouncing bass line, and announces its chorus with a minor key change. Album highlight, “Aht Uh Mi Hed” is purportedly the result of an acid trip, otherworldly and discordant. The song folds sweeping strings and mandolin into its layers of breezy, acoustic guitars and whimsical flute, recalling Arthur Lee’s Love. “Rainy Day” is a jazzy, noir film score for a movie that never existed; while “Pling!” serves as modern, lo-fi electronica, driven by drum-machine and synths – it’s the kind of song that would come to be commonplace in the catalogues of late 90s dance artists such as Air and Zero 7.

Despite its evident quality, wide-reaching influence, and historical importance; Inspiration Information failed to live up to Columbia’s expectations and Otis was subsequently dropped from the label in 1975. Two years later, Otis’ own “Strawberry Letter 23” (originally featured on the album, Freedom Flight) would become a worldwide hit for the Brothers Johnson, perversely ensuring that the success of the songwriter’s most recognisable song would forever be attributed to another band. By the time “Strawberry Letter 23” made the Brothers Johnson a household name in 1977, it had been two years since Otis had so much as granted an interview. He wouldn’t return to public life for nearly 40 more.

Wings Of Love (the second disc in this two-disc set) collects 14 songs recorded between 1975 and 2000. The disc is nothing short of revelatory, with a number of its songs easily eclipsing anything that appeared on Otis’ first three albums. “Special” calls to mind early Prince with its disco rhythm and irresistible funk guitar. “Give Me Something Good” marks one of Otis’ most impassioned vocal performances whilst evoking the spirit of P-Funk with its Bootsy Collins bass line and spaced-out guitar solo. “Tryin’ To Get Close To You” is smooth funk-soul, while “Fireball Of Love” is a Hendrix-esque guitar workout which highlights Otis’ impressive chops (both David Bowie and the Rolling Stones tried unsuccessfully to recruit the guitarist in the 70s). The epic title track begins with the sound of seagulls and crashing waves before acoustic Spanish guitar and wind chimes give way to dramatic synths and searing electric guitar lines. The song is one of many highlights on a disc that, had things gone differently, might easily have served as a solid greatest hits compilation.

Inspiration Information / Wings Of Love is unquestionably the definitive Shuggie Otis document, collecting both his most celebrated album and a treasure trove of previously unreleased gems. It acts as both the perfect introduction to the man’s music for newcomers, and the rarities collection that long-time fans have been clamouring for since 1975.

Bob Russell

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