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Interview: Shuggie Otis

An R&B cult hero makes a big comeback.

Photograph: Courtesy Big Hassle
Shuggie Otis
If you’re old enough to have had a handful of love affairs, there’s a definite chance you’ve put “Strawberry Letter 23” on at least one mixtape. That dreamy soul swoon is the calling card of Shuggie Otis, a singer and guitar hero admired by Prince, David Byrne, Terry Riley, Mos Def and Raphael Saadiq. But maybe you haven’t heard of Otis at all—which wouldn’t be surprising, given that he hasn’t released a new album since 1974. What is surprising is that Otis is back, after seemingly dropping off the face of the earth 40 years ago.

“Yeah, I know, it’s been a long time,” Otis chuckles, pre–sound check for a recent Highline Ballroom showcase. Nudging his seventh decade, he looks every inch a star, wearing a beige fedora with a tiny S-shaped pin, and a cream-colored cravat. But he speaks softly and has the demeanor of someone who’s a little frayed around the edges. “Couldn’t get work,” he shrugs, by way of explanation for his absence. “It was hard, and I wanted to do it on this kind of a level. I didn’t want to play the chitlin circuit anymore, you know?” He adds, emphatically, “Now this is where I want to be.”

Given Otis’s musical pedigree and chops, it seems astonishing that he wouldn’t be able to make records. The son of R&B pioneer Johnny Otis, Johnny Alexander Veliotes Jr.was nicknamed “Shuggie” by his mom’s friend, on account of his sugar-sweetness as a baby. Prodigiously gifted, he played drums at four, guitar at 11 and bass at 12, performing in nightclubs as part of his dad’s band, and wearing dark glasses because he was underage. After releasing a gloriously filthy blues album with his pop (Snatch and the Poontangs), Otis cut his solo debut in 1969 at 16, following it in 1971 with Freedom Flight (which included “Strawberry Letter 23”).

“I was on a natural high,” Otis says. The Rolling Stones invited him to join the band when Mick Taylor left, and Quincy Jones volunteered to produce Otis’s next album. He refused both offers. “I’m not trying to brag, but I already had a style coming out,” he says, “and I wanted to work on that.” Three years later, the extraordinary Inspiration Information (1974) resulted—an album that to this day feels like fresh-cut grass.

And then? Nothing. “I always wanted to come back, but I didn’t get the chance,” Otis says. “I got dropped from Epic. First they dropped my dad, then two weeks after that, he called me and said, ‘They dropped you.’ I said ‘So what? We’ll get another deal in two weeks.’ I went to every label you could think of, and just, psshhh. I mean, it became humorous, almost. When I couldn’t get a deal, a friend told me, ‘You know, Shuggie, I think you were blackballed, blacklisted. My ego said, no, no way. But years and years went by, and I said, ‘You know what? I think that person might’ve been right.’ Maybe they thought I was a little young punk, pompous or something. But my reputation wasn’t that bad.”

Otis played blues gigs with his dad, and took day jobs here and there. When acid jazz became hip in the early ’90s, Inspiration Information emerged as something of a touchstone, with Prince and Lenny Kravitz declaring themselves fans. David Byrne reissued the album on Luaka Bop in 2001, with tracks from Freedom Flight included. But even with a resurgence of interest, nothing seemed to take.

“I was kind of a bad boy as far as taking care of myself,” Otis says gently. “I was not lost in drugs, but, I must admit, I was a drinker for many years, and that’s a drug. It was years and years, and it was getting ready to take me out, so I said, This has to stop.” He quit two weeks before Christmas 2008: “I got under the covers for two days, and I woke up that third day. The sun was out, and I opened my eyes and I looked up. I couldn’t believe it. I had no cravings. I wasn’t depressed anymore. I wasn’t dehydrated and all that crazy stuff.” When he got sober, he says, his fingers came back and he started to practice for hours a day.

Ask Otis how he got from there to here, and he points to his manager, a cheery Scottish lady named Tinka. “She’s what made it happen,” he says. Tinka asked Otis to play a Hendrix tribute show, the pair clicked, “and she got me this nine-day tour in all these different countries, just, zap, zap, zap.” His first show, in London last November, was a little rusty, but, says Otis, the mistakes didn’t matter—long-term fans were over the moon to see their hero for the first time.

“I just want to do what I’ve always wanted to do, and that’s become successful in music,” Otis says. “I don’t expect to be the next number-one craze, but I’m gonna shoot for it.”

Shuggie Otis plays B.B. Kings Blues Club & Grill Thu 18 and Sat 20, and Music Hall of Williamsburg Fri 19.