Much to his chagrin, Shuggie Otis is among rock’s greatest one-brilliant-album-wonders. The singer-guitarist’s third full-length, 1974’s Inspiration Information, was a dreamy, virtuosic collection of lilting funk, guileless pop, and drifting soundscapes — and it floated under the radar for decades before earning its proper due. (The music has since been sampled by the likes of OutKast and Beyoncé.)
On April 16, that shining psychedelic beacon is being reignited by Sony Legacy as Inspiration Information / Wings of Love, a collection that couples the aforementioned album with previously unreleased live and studio tracks recorded between 1975 and 2000, years when Shuggie, the son of R&B pioneer Johnny Otis, was plying his trade far from the mainstream.
The soft-spoken cult hero, now 59 years old, chatted with SPIN about his long-gestating return.
During all those years of obscurity, did you ever just say ‘to hell with it’ and want to give up on the music business?
Not at all. I’ve always wanted to be in [the music business]. I never wanted to be out of it. For years I took CDs and tapes up to every label you can imagine, all up till the 2000s, with no luck. I had bands sporadically. I played with my father occasionally. Did a lot of recording, too, with myself and other people. But I never cried over the situation. The first couple of years [after Inspiration Information] kinda concerned me a little bit. I was wondering why I was getting put down by everybody. There were one or two people that wanted to have me with a producer. I still wouldn’t go for that. I said no. I produced [Inspiration Information], so working with a producer would be like a step backwards for me. Even though the album wasn’t a million seller. They wanted me to be a pop star and do some other kind of music; I wanted to do what was comin’ from my head, my own music. But most of the companies didn’t even want to put me with a producer. They just said no.
Did you ever wish you’d given it a shot with a producer?
No, not at all. I didn’t second-guess myself.
Were you always aware that, even though it didn’t sell when the album was released, there was a small group of people that cared passionately about Inspiration Information?
Since the late ’70s, I had a feeling that one day that album would be re-released, and I thought it would be Sony. It turned out to be Luaka Bop [David Byrne‘s label also reissued the album in 2001], and now it is gonna be Sony. When it first came out again the response did surprise me. I think it sold 7,000 copies the first week, which is not bad for somebody who — a lot of people didn’t know who I was. Kids all of a sudden liked the music as well, which surprised me. I didn’t think kids would like that type of music. But little did I know: Music is music. All kids aren’t the same, and all record buyers aren’t the same. The major-label record buyers who make people famous are not the same as the people who were buying my record years later.
Is it strange to have people call you something like a “cult legend”? That term also implies a failure on some level.
It’s understandable. People want to know why has it been so long since I put something out. The reason why is because no one would have me and I did not want to play the chitlin’ circuit anymore. I had done that with my dad. And I had done some gigs through the years with my own group, just to make money. I’m still living off of royalties from “Strawberry Letter 23” [his 1971 song, later a hit for the Brothers Johnson] to this day. But there were some years that weren’t so cool. You do what you have to do. I had a few bands here and there. But I never put anything serious together because I never had the backing. I never had the money to do it. I never had a record company. I had all this material but no one wanted it. And all these songs are coming out now on the release on Sony. So we’ll see what it does.
What do you like to do when you’re not making music?
Oh, lots of things. I’ve been working on novels and film treatments.
Really? What kind of stuff do you write?
Some of it’s kinda dark humor, some of it’s kinda silly, and some of it’s very serious. I have one that’s about history, and I have one that’s really a drama. They’re mostly designed for movies. I haven’t really gotten into a whole book yet. I have some treatments for movies and a lot of ideas for that. But I plan on starting out with short stories that I’d like to sell on my website. Maybe by next year I could start doing that. But I do have movie ideas that I want to send the message out about to the movie people. I have some ideas that they might be interested in. I don’t know, it’s hard to get in touch with those people, so if you don’t know any of ’em it’s hard to break through.
Are you nervous about having more attention on you now after working basically anonymously for so long? It seems like a big change.
I always felt that I would come back and have a record deal, that I’d have some kind of a good situation. I don’t have a record deal now, actually. The Sony deal is just for this album. The Wings of Love album is actually on my own label and I’m leasing it to them. I got an LLC, Shugiterious Enterprises, so I can put out whatever I want eventually when I get funded, because I have a lot of ideas that I want to start an online store with. I’m just as anxious to get on the movies and the books as I am the music. Music’s first and that’s what I know that I can do, but I also have some good ideas for stories, and I am gonna pursue that. That’s gonna happen. All I have to do is get it out there.