Shuggie Otis on Returning to 'Inspiration Information,' Re-emerging With 'Wings of Love'


On Friday afternoon, while backstage at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Shuggie Otis called Hive. The cult rock legend thought he had some downtime before his first television performance in a decade. Just under 10 minutes though, he got called to the stage -- and to the start of his second comeback in 12 years.

When Otis first released the dreamy, psychedelic Inspiration Information in 1974, label executives and listeners alike were turned off by his sudden departure from his blues upbringing. (His father, Johnny Otis, is considered the Godfather of R&B.) Otis' Jimmy Fallon performance wasn't even the first time he's made a comeback on late-night TV -- that original comeback was in 2001 on David Letterman and Conan, off the heels of Luaka Bop's Inspiration Information reissue.

This week Otis reissues Inspiration Information yet again, this time through Epic/Legacy and paired with his first new music in 39 years, The Wings of Love. As much of a departure as Inspiration Information was for Otis, The Wings of Love is also a world away -- an eager, funky, synth-driven effort that seemingly span decades of musical evolution.

Otis explained to Hive how it felt to be a comeback kid twice now, at age 59. He has much to say about the years in-between his late-night appearances. In a span of 15 minutes -- bless his heart, he ran late to the Fallon stage -- Hive asked three questions total.

That night he would perform "Inspiration Information," and then, after a false start, Wings of Love highlight "Special." That hiccup's since been edited out of online footage, and it's a shame -- it was a moment that showed Otis is fine with starting over, but is also eager to move on.

How were you approached to do the reissue and to release The Wings of Love?

I got a phone call from the U.K., and they were asking me about the new album [The Wings of Love]. I was talking about it on the internet, that I was gonna release it. I'd release a couple of tunes. I said I had this album and I was looking for a record label basically. Some people knew about it; in '75 a lot of people knew about these songs, but it wasn't completed until 2007, when I mixed it finally. So I got a phone call from Sony, and I was going to do a deal with Wax Poetics, a magazine that was getting ready to start a record label. But a week later I get a deal with Sony U.K., and that changed the whole thing, at least for me.

"It didn't really surprise me that much that ['Inspiration Information'] got noticed, but what did surprise me was the younger crowd, all the way down to teenagers."

So they said they wanted to put it out, and they didn't want to put it out as a single album -- they wanted to do it as a double, a companion album to an Inspiration Information re-release, because Sony never did put out a re-release. If you see any album prior to this one, it's bootlegged; if it had a blue label on it, that's a bootleg. Anyway, that's the one that got the attention of a person by the name by [Red Hot's] Paul Heck. He was the one who passed it to David Byrne, who owns Luaka Bop with Yale Evelev. So anyway, they said yes.

The first week I think it sold 7,000 or something, and [I got] emails, a thousand emails. It didn't really surprise me that much that it got noticed, but what did surprise me was the younger crowd, all the way down to teenagers. I just didn't think they would like that kind of music. Apparently the [Luaka Bop reissue]'s totally gone. So I'm very blessed to have an audience of teenagers from the '90s the '00s, because that's early and when I was playing I used to see people who were 80 years old. [laughs] So it's just great. I'm really a lucky person to do this, to be able to come back at all.

You know, I don't know what happened to make the music industry lose their interest in me. I kept thinking it was because I didn't do what they thought I was going to do, maybe being a blues star or rock guitar star. I shy away from that in Inspiration Information. First of all, it wasn't what I wanted to do at the time, play a lot of guitar -- in other words, being a blue rock star. I wanted to write music more -- and I still do -- and incorporate more guitar into it. I did the album how I wanted to, and it's not like I held back at any time, I just took it in another direction if you know what I mean.

[caption id="attachment_73011" align="alignleft" width="640"]Shuggie Otis Shuggie Otis photo courtesy of Big Hassle.[/caption]

I think another reason is I wasn't commercial enough, so for the top 40 -- and I wasn't -- I couldn't do it, and it didn't bother me. I knew I wasn't doing commercial. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do, and they let me do it so I'm very happy about that. I always had a feeling. Maybe a couple of years went by and I said, "One day, I think Inspiration Information will be re-released," and it actually happened in 2001. I had no idea; someone told me that. I thought Sony was going to do it. They are going to do it now. So it's ironic that I've come back around with the company I've started with.

"I would get bitter a little bit, sometimes negative about it, but I never turned around and pondered over what wasn’t happening because I always thought it was their problem, not mine."

But it's all brand-new people, and it's a whole different ball game, and I'm getting much more attention, much more respect than I did back then. It was like once I started doing my own thing, and I wasn't going to do the blues and be a little kid anymore, growing up and learning to speak my own mind, they stopped coming. So you know, I can't name anyone because I don't have anyone I can put the blame on, no one I can think of -- expect the record company, the A&R people and whoever.

With the business people, I never got a word in. There is some very well-known president who I knew personally. [Laughs.] I won't name any names, but I got turned down by everybody. Am I bragging? What is there to brag about? The thing is, you come out, you're young, they're all excited about you, and it goes to your head a little bit. It doesn't necessarily make you arrogant or pompous, but it does let you know that you have something. I didn't want to just put a band together for years and get to work like my dad used to back in the older days; it was all he could do really. He didn't want to do anything else. But, I was making money off my record for [Freedom Flight's] "Strawberry Letter 23" and well; I could make off that for years and years, and I did.

But at the same time my life was happy, so it's not like I ever suffered. I would get bitter a little bit, sometimes negative about it, but I never turned around and pondered over what wasn't happening because I always thought it was their problem, not mine. That's the way I looked at it, and that you could either take it or leave it. That's how I felt about it. I never cried over it. I wondered about it a little bit, because I was concerned, sure. I was concerned for most of my life, but I finally realized, "They don't want you right now."

There are times where I didn't feel like playing, or someone would ask, "Hey, do you want to go to Europe with me, or Africa?" and I was like, "Nah, that's alright. I'll stay at home." But now it's different, because I have people giving me the respect for my music, so that makes me feel totally new. Before it was like, "Well, we want to do this," "We want you to do that," and I did a few gigs like that -- blues gigs. I love blues, I play blues, but not totally, you know?

So it's kind of confusing to some of the people -- "I don't know why a kid starts playing this type of music and then doing it different" -- and that's a negative thing like well. "What is he doing? I don't like him no more." So my audience was kind of split for a while. Now people respect me. Well they have their favorites; I'm not saying that everyone respects me, but my fans mean more to me now than they did when I first came out, you know what I'm saying? So it's kind of like they know more about the Shuggie Otis story. They're calling me, I think I got to get off. I'm sorry. I have time for maybe one more.

Actually I had musicians forward questions to you; I'll just ask one of them. Comedian/musician Reggie Watts wanted to ask, "When you were making Inspiration Information, how were you feeling at the time?"

Ah. I was going though a, pretty much, a trapped state when I was recording Inspiration Information. It was kind of a dark period in my life. I mean, I had fun during the time, but it was on and off. It was kind of like forced -- ah, I don't know how to explain it, not a struggle but ...

Optimism, maybe?

I mean, I've lived my life. I still love music. I was doing that album because it was the first time I'd ever written for myself. I had mostly been on my father's albums more and what not, but I'd never done an album for myself. And I was falling in love with jazz and classical, with composers as much as the blues and all the other people in my life. I started to come up with an idea, not purposefully; I wasn't like, I'm going to write this and it's going to sound like this. No -- I would just come down, and it would all come down to my head, something like that, and then I put it down.

So that's the way I write. I don't play anything for anyone. If I don't like it, I won't let anyone hear it until it's done. Not everything I like is great; I just don't let anyone hear what I don't want them to hear. They might think it's great, horrible -- doesn't matter. If I like it, then I'll let somebody hear it and it'll come out. So finally I get this album out, so that's great. It was really a labor of love, because I love everything I do, especially with my name on it. You know I've done a lot for others over the years, but when you do something with your name on it, you know it's a whole different thing too. You know, you want to look good. You want to sound good.

Is that why you didn't mix The Wings of Love until recently?

Oh, no, no, no. I was always happy with it. I didn't have a chance to mix it. My father had moved into the studio for a couple of years, and I still had a little overdubbing to do. That was in the '90s. No, I was very happy with what I was going to do, and it turned out right. It turned out exactly right. I don't know how else to put it. I think the time passed just because I couldn't get a record deal. I had an album, other songs too, and I couldn't get a record deal with anyone for years and years and years.

Also I didn't want to put a band together and go out, you know? Putting a band together is hard; I had to find the right guys. I've said that before, but now, now I know. I even have a couple of my family members, my brother and my son playing also. Things are going well. We're playing at places all over the world. So yeah, it's just really good to be here. Oh no, they're calling me. I'm sorry. They're trying to rush me out now.

I really appreciate your time.

Thank you very much, but I gotta get over there, because... [Laughs.] I won't be on the show.

The Inspiration Information reissue is out now via Epic. Watch Shuggie Otis on Fallow, below: