Shuggie Otis – Inspiration Information / Wings of Love (Sony Legacy) review
Prince cut his teeth on this record
Shuggie Otis was riding high in the early Seventies. The son of bandleader Johnny Otis (who had a massive hit with “Willie and the Hand Jive” in 1958), Shuggie had already developed into a guitar prodigy in his late teens, releasing two solid albums featuring some hot soloing. Released in 1974, Inspiration Information was a testament to a singular talent – virtually every note played and sang on the record came from Otis himself. Yet, for whatever reason, the album was not a success, and its failure proved to be a crushing blow to his career. For almost 40 years, Shuggie never released another record.
But, as time went by, word got around about this fantastic album – used copies fetching top dollar as they traded hands. Other artists emerged who sounded a lot like Otis, most notably Prince, who has cited this album as a huge influence. Now, Sony Legacy has not only remastered this underrappreciated gem, they’ve managed to unearth Otis himself, who has a treasure-trove of unreleased recordings over the last four decades. Inspiration Information / Wings of Love couples the original 1974 album with some stellar never-before heard tracks from Otis’ archives.
Listening to Inspiration Information now, it’s hard to understand why this record was largely ignored. Perhaps it wasn’t sweet enough to fall into the Philly soul category. Yet, it also wasn’t hard enough to be considered funk. Where Inspiration Information succeeds is in its understated groove. It’s not something that grabs you immediately. In fact, it may take a few listens to sink in, but when it does, it’s in there for good.
“Inspiration Information” starts off the record, drenched in wah wah guitar and organ, while Otis croons in falsetto, sounding very much like Marvin Gaye. That’s followed by “Island Letter,” a track so gentle, it’s almost not there. The real standout is “Aht Uh Mi Hed,” fueled by the Rhythm King, an early version of a drum machine, the song builds with strings and a flute, eventually adding a funky bassline – the entire track has a hypnotic quality to it.
The remainder of the album is made up of instrumentals, giving this mostly-recorded-at-home record an unfinished feel. “Rainy Day” has some gorgeous jazz chords played over a slow beat, while “Not Available” features funky guitar work – but both songs sound like sketches more than actual songs.
Disc one is augmented by four tracks that were left off the original album. Of those, “Miss Pretty” sounds a lot like Sly & the Family Stone, while “Things We Like to Do” has some very strange production – it makes it sound like there’s something wrong with your speakers.
Upon its release, Inspiration Information barely scraped the album chart and didn’t yield a hit single. It would be the last thing we would hear from Otis for a very long time.
Of course, the story didn’t actually end here. This new edition of Inspiration Information also contains Wings of Love, an entire disc of unreleased tracks, many culled from what would’ve been that album’s followup. Some of the tracks have the same home recording funkiness that imparts Inspiration. But, there are some standouts, most notably, the title track, which is over eleven minutes long and features, not only some searing guitar work, but also some of the best singing of his entire career. Near the song’s end, he even reprises some of his solo from “Strawberry Letter #23,” which he wrote, and was later covered by the Brothers Johnson. If this had come out, in some sort of edited form, this could definitely have been a hit single.
“Special” has a paranoid quality to its funk, while “Give Me Something Good” could be a Stevie Wonder outtake. “Walkin’ Down the Country” has an odd, mellow 70’s vibe – almost akin to the Fifth Dimension in the close harmonies.
“Give Me Another Chance” sounds very much from the Eighties, especially in its percussion, but there is some freakin’ smokin guitar playing here. This could’ve definitely been a hit as well. ”Don’t You Run Away” is another track with some fine guitar work, while “Fawn” features a surprising acoustic guitar solo.
If there’s one knock on these unreleased songs, it’s that some are too long – 5 or 6 minutes, when they should’ve been about three. But, still most of them make great grooves. Then, near the end, comes another curve ball – “Black Belt Sheriff” is a live performance from 2000 featuring just Otis on vocals and acoustic guitar – the dirty slide he lays down is stunning.
Listening to Wings Of Love, all you can do is shake your head. This incredibly talented musician didn’t stop making great music; we just never got a chance to hear it until now.
The accompanying booklet contains several essays – one from Otis himself, where he attests to not willfully disappearing. In his words, he was pushed out by record companies that did not want to sign him to a contact.
Not as great as What’s Going On, or Songs in the Key of Life, Inspiration Information still has its moments. Any fan of Seventies soul or funk will find plenty to like here. –Tony Peters