Inspiration Information/Wings of Love
, April 26th, 2013 08:25
"Shuggie Otis should have been a West Coast superstar, a genius, a musical wizard of the highest order." – Patrick Forge. Back in 1971, the Los Angeles son of blues legend Johnny Otis began work on his psychedelic soul masterpiece Inspiration Information. It was an album that looked destined to become a cornerstone in 70s soul, from a young man with all the right connections. Three years in the making and released by the major label Epic, the album slipped away into obscurity however, after its title track floundered in the lower reaches of the Billboard 200. The LP's futuristic use of drum machines, synths and uniquely off key sound proved too advanced for the mainstream. It wasn't until the mid 90s through DJs like Patrick Forge and Gilles Peterson that Inspiration Information got the exposure it deserved, becoming something of a cult item amongst those heads digging for something deeper. Shuggie Otis' soul funk opus was finally re-issued by David Byrne's Luaka Bop label in 2001 and despite being lauded by everyone from Prince to J Dilla and compared to such luminaries as D'Angelo and Sly Stone, Otis has retained his cult status. So word of his first gigs in the UK was always going to ensure his two nights at the Jazz Café at the end of last year would be sell outs.
Something of a child prodigy, Otis had nurtured an air of mystery at an early age, disguising himself with a false moustache and dark glasses to appear at after-hours clubs with his father. In his early career it looked like he was heading for fame after becoming an eminent player on the West Coast scene, featuring on Al Kooper's second Super Session album at the tender age of 15. Just a year later he released his solo debut Here Comes Shuggie Otis on Epic Records, an LP that featured his father alongside players like Leon Haywood and Wilton Felder. Playing with everyone from Frank Zappa to Etta James, Shuggie's star was certainly on the rise after being lauded by B.B. King, as "his favorite new guitarist". It looked like his future was mapped out. Even more so when his second LP Freedom Flight followed in 1971 containing the future soul epic 'Strawberry Letter 23' (turned into a hit when the Brothers Johnson released it in 1977).
While Shuggie had written all the music on his previous two LPs, when he entered the studio in 1971 to record Inspiration Information it was to be his first LP as producer. This would change his sound dramatically. Gone were the blues stylings of his father's production replaced instead by a hugely progressive sound. While his new electronic production had precedents in the music of Sly Stone's 1971 album, There's A Riot Goin' On, this was psychedelic soul with a difference. It was certainly too strange for the music industry and Shuggie Otis was dropped by Epic. His withdrawal from the industry that spurned him was understandable, and there was an air of unfinished business about his appearance at the Jazz Café in Camden towards the end of last year. Despite technical glitches, or possibly because of them, there were moments when the purity of his genius shone so bright that you could only look on in awe. One of those moments was during an epic rendition of a song called 'Wings of Love'. We later discover that this epic slab of psychedelic soul is one of a handful of unreleased tracks that had been gathering dust since they were recorded back in the '70s and '80s. We then hear that the timely re-issue of Inspiration Information is to be supported by a bonus CD of these tracks.
Whether you are new to Inspiration Information or coming back to it after discovering Otis during his previous renaissance, you can't fail to be impressed by the prescient genius of an artist on the edge of his craft. Despite the trippy soul of cuts like 'Aht Uh Mi Hed' and the electronic experimentations of 'XL-30' inspiring everyone from J Dilla to Digable Planets, its testament of where Otis' head was at back in the early '70s that the LP still inhabits its own space in black music; unique, strange and beguiling. While the tracks that make up the retrospective Wings of Love don't compare in either vision or delivery, there is enough of a distinct sound to make it a worthy accompaniment to such a pivotal LP. It's been said that Otis' seclusion from the industry and his dissociation of other movements in music imbued his later work with a timeless quality. And in some ways that is both the LPs strength and its weakness. It's certainly true that it's hard to discern between the cuts here from 1980 ('Special') and 1987 ('If You'd Been Mine'). This is as much to do with the fact that Otis played all the instruments himself as well as taking full ownership of production. At times that gives his music a directionless quality and you feel he could have done with being reigned in. But it also gives the music a natural flow and Otis is best when he uses that freedom to roam, as on the wonderfully off key 'Trying To Get Close To You', which wouldn't have been out of place on his 1971 opus. Similarly, 'Walkin' Down The Country' nods to the languid flow of 'Happy House' a track that still sounds like the future of soul more than 40 years on. The aforementioned 'Wings of Love' begins with an acoustic segment reminiscent of the late great Jon Lucien before opening into an epic slice of rock drenched soul, closing some 11 minutes later in a haze of electric guitars. And trust me this LP is a grower so by the time you've rewound for 'Give Me Something Good' it will sound like an old classic. And that's before we reach the epic rock soul of 'Wings of Love' – all 11 minutes of it. Outsider soul from a true original.