By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Upon his re-emergence in December 2012 for shows at the Echoplex and the Mayan, these were the questions long-curious fans had about the West Athens–raised, 1970s soul prodigy. He'd been celebrated and sampled by everyone from DJ Quik and OutKast to J Dilla; B.B. King branded him his favorite young guitarist in the early '70s and later in the decade The Brothers Johnson had a big hit with his "Strawberry Letter 23." Billy Preston invited him to replace Mick Taylor in The Rolling Stones (he declined).
Then, his moment disintegrated and he disappeared: no released material and few interviews for 39 solid years.
"I wasn't gone by choice. When interviewers ask, 'Why now?' It's, like, "What do you mean, 'Why now?' I didn't have the chance before," explains the 59-year-old born Johnny Alexander Veliotes Jr., at his publicist's office in West L.A. The official answer to "why now" is that Epic Records is finally reissuing 1974's Inspiration Information, Otis' magic-lantern masterpiece of blues, R&B and soul fusion. The new edition arrives with four previously unheard tracks and a second disc of unreleased songs recorded between 1975 and 2000.
He explains: "I tried to get another deal after Epic dropped me" — Inspiration Information was a commercial disappointment, charting at No. 181. "I got the door slammed on me at every record label you could think of, sometimes twice. After a while, it became a comic strip."
Otis now lives in Monrovia. The paisley-age afro and incipient mustache from Otis' teen years is gone, replaced by long, wavy, black hair dusted with gray, bundled into a neat ponytail. The 'stache is thicker, accompanied by a goatee, soul patch and puffy denim shirt. He no longer looks like a young Prince, more like an elegant pirate — especially onstage with a dapper cravat.
After a nearly 10-year hiatus, Otis has started performing live again. His recent local shows were his first since backing up Mos Def on a 2004 spot date. The Echoplex performance was marred by delays and what Otis describes as an accident stemming from plugging a speaker cable into his guitar. Reviews were lackluster, but the Weekly's Sean O'Connell tempered the criticism by stating that Otis' guitar sorcery still "summons B.B. King's Lucille and Albert King's Flying V."
"It was just one of those nights. I'm not even worried about it anymore," Otis says, flashing a bittersweet smile and noting that his subsequent New York show was well-received.
Before you meet Otis, you encounter the myth. The vanished genius worshipped by crate-digger cultists and waylaid by the industry — a psychedelic phantom sharing a bloodline with Brian Wilson, Arthur Lee of Love and Syd Barrett. Otis has a sphinxlike elusiveness. He answers questions circuitously and describes himself as neither having nor wanting many friends. He's generous with his memories but only to a point.
When asked if he worked a day job during his off years, he responds: "Some ... but I don't want to mention what they were. Not because I'm embarrassed, but because people still have those jobs. It would be like saying, 'Well, I don't have to do that stupid job anymore.' I actually had fun doing those little jobs. It was funny. I thought to myself, 'If I could put as much effort into my own thing as I put into these jobs, maybe I'll get somewhere.' So I'm doing it now. I'm trying the best I can."
His son, Eric Otis — who is joined in his father's band by his older brother Lucky — describes his dad as "cinematic." The elder Otis adds that he's always writing stories and movie treatments. "Maybe three or four are good, possibly more — I'm being a little humble," he chuckles.
This much is clear. Otis was born in November 1953 to R&B legend and "Hand Jive" king Johnny Otis and his wife, Phyllis. The Beatles hit when he was 10, and that was it. Otis was enraptured whenever a guitar came on TV, and the attraction only grew stronger when his dad took him to his band's weekend rehearsals. Eventually Shuggie was given a cheap Japanese ax and taught himself chords. One year later, his dad brought him into the studio, and he became an in-demand session guitarist before he could legally drive, appearing on works by everyone from Frank Zappa to Bob Dylan sideman Al Kooper.
By day a minor celebrity at Washington High School in South Central L.A., at night he played clubs as the baby-faced auteur behind the bluesy 1970 debut, Here Comes Shuggie Otis. The next year's Freedom Flight spawned "Strawberry Letter 23," an auroral teenage daydream that only charted via a 1977 cover from The Brothers Johnson, produced by Quincy Jones.
Inspiration Information, his third and final record, landed in 1974 with little advance notice and no pop singles. After three years of relative seclusion that found Otis playing every instrument except horns and strings, the masterwork was mostly ignored. An unruly but gorgeous sprawl of cascading guitars, celestial falsettos, weird jams, drum machines and drugs, it's something of a hallucinatory blend of Sly Stone funk, teardrop psych-folk and Hendrixian electric blues. Otis says he took acid only three times, but one trip inspired "Aht Uh Mi Hed," the most iconic cut.
So stoked to see this legend has returned. I found a whole video about his upcoming projects at http://smarturl.it/Inspiration_Wings and now cannot wait to get my hands on it!
"We had a rainy day...it was a snake back situation...Here's a pencil pad...I got to share some information." (way better than Zoloft)
"Inspiration Information" is one of the most played songs on my iPod...and when the beautiful-but-evil troll master I call my ex-girlfriend broke my heart, it was this jammy jam I turned to whenever I needed to smile. It's the most underrated jam of the 1970s.