Shuggie Otis “Freedom Flight”

As we all know, the oldest cliché in rock is the casualty list. There are the high-profile heroes of misadventure: Buddy Holly, Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan. There are those that couldn’t handle success and took the ultimate way out: Nick Drake, Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley. But perhaps saddest of all are those huge talents who unaccountably chose simply to fade into obscurity, often in self-imposed seclusion: Brian Wilson, Peter Green, Emitt Rhodes . . . and Shuggie Otis.

Johnnie Velotes Jr was a precocious musical polymath. Son of extrovert jump-jive bandleader Johnnie Otis, Shuggie inherited the musical gene in spades, playing guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and vibes fluently before reaching his teens. At fifteen he replaced Mike Bloomfield in Al Kooper’s occasional all-star supergroup for the album Kooper Session: Al Kooper Introduces Shuggie Otis. In the same year he played bass on the sessions for Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats; that’s Shuggie’s bubbling, syncopating bass on “Peaches En Regalia”.

A year later the teenage prodigy released his first solo album, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, co-written and produced by his father and backed by the cream of Johnnie Sr’s session pals. The second followed a year later: its title Freedom Flight symbolised Shuggie’s breaking loose from his father’s patronage, with most compositions being credited to him alone and with a much smaller coterie of backing players, while Shuggie overdubbed his own bass and keyboard parts and wrote his own string and brass charts. But even this new level of creative control wasn’t enough: his third and final album, Inspiration Information, took three years to construct, with Shuggie playing everything bar the horns and strings which he scored. And then, at the age of 22, Shuggie Otis went into self-imposed retirement. Apart from occasional studio sessions for other artists and, recently, some low-key live appearances in Northern California, he’s remained silent and invisible.

The first album is an enthusiastic freshman romp through blues and funk, showcasing Shuggies’s youthfully exuberant guitar; the last is an introspective, sensitive effort that unites soul and jazz in what would now be called ambient soundscapes, way ahead of its time but with a curiously vulnerable, unfinished quality. Freedom Flight is undoubtedly his most-realised collection. The blues/funk axis carries over from Here Comes, notably on the killer opener “Ice Cold Daydream” and the sole cover, Gene Barge’s “Me And My Woman”, but with a far more mature, considered approach to his guitar playing from the eighteen-year-old virtuoso. The album also nods in other directions; the gorgeous psychedelically-tinged California soul of “Strawberry Letter 23” with its astonishing coda, the restrained modal slide guitar work on “Sweet Thang” and the guitar/flute dialogue that ends the joyous “Someone’s Always Singing”. But the big surprise is the title track, which moves unexpectedly into the most melodic of free jazz with the guitar improvising against tenor sax, Fender Rhodes and a ubiquitous wind chime for thirteen minutes, and not a wasted note anywhere – Shuggie’s absolute masterpiece. This points toward the third album, and the direction he’d probably have taken thereafter had he stayed the course.

One reviewer called Shuggie Otis the link between Sly Stone and Stephen Stills; personally I’d say between Mike Bloomfield and Curtis Mayfield. But such comparisons are subjective and irrelevant. If you want to follow up this brilliant, enigmatic young musician’s brief career on CD, Inspiration Information was reissued on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop imprint in 2001 with four key tracks from Freedom Flight included as bonus cuts, while the first two albums reappeared in full as a twofer on the excellent Raven label from Australia in 2003. Both releases are unreservedly recommended.

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“Strawberry Letter 23”

:) Original Vinyl | 1971 | Epic | search ebay ]
:D CD Reissue | 2003 | 2fer | Raven | at amzn ]

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  • Jeff Buckley didn’t commit suicide. It was an accidental drowning.

  • From what I’ve read the jury is also out on Drake’s death. Unclear if it was suicide or not…and there was no real success to handle either for Drake while alive

  • SD

    Shuggie lives in Santa Monica. Though, very reclusive

  • djh

    no one really knows with jeff buckley, which is the saddest part of all

  • “no one really knows with jeff buckley, which is the saddest part of all”

    So everyone who drowned could have committed suicide by that logic.

    From his estate, “Jeff Buckley’s death was not “mysterious,” related to drugs, alcohol, or suicide. We have a police report, a medical examiner’s report, and an eye witness to prove that it was an accidental drowning, and that Mr. Buckley was in a good frame of mind prior to the accident.”

    Speculation should be removed from this article or at least state that it’s the author’s speculation and not the official cause of death.

  • Len Liechti

    From the Wikipedia article on Nick Drake: “On 25 November 1974, Drake died from an overdose of amitriptyline, a prescribed antidepressant.” Yes, this could have been either deliberate or accidental, but the coroner in his case concluded that it had been suicide. It’s well documented that Drake had become profoundly upset by the prospect of live playing and unhappy with the recording process, contributing to his clinical depression, a condition that frequently does lead to the sufferer taking his/her own life.

    On Jeff Buckley, Wikipedia says that “An autopsy to clarify the cause of Buckley’s death showed no signs of drugs or alcohol in his system and the death was ruled as an accidental drowning.” However, I’d contend that walking fully clothed and shod into a river whilst NOT under the influence of alcohol or substance abuse is not usually the action of a man in a normal psychological state and contented with life. There is no evidence that Buckley’s mental state was related to any perceived problems with his musical career, although he had been attempting to get his second album together for almost a year with varying degrees of dissatisfaction. As djh says, “No-one really knows with Jeff Buckley”.

    Wikipedia says of Kurt Cobain that “On April 8, 1994, Cobain was found dead at his home in Seattle, the victim of what was officially ruled a suicide by a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head.” He was a known heroin addict and depressive and had a history of failed suicide attempts. Wikipedia again: “Cobain struggled to reconcile the massive success of Nirvana with his underground roots.”

    I accept that I’ve rather fliply promulgated some music industry myths concerning suicides in the course of my article, and apologise for my inadequate research in Jeff Buckley’s case. I believe that my points regarding the musicians who chose to withdraw intact from the music scene are valid, and I stand by them . . . unless anyone out there has better information?

  • djh

    not sayin everyone graham, just buckley. and the eye witness reportedly turned away and then looked back and he was gone. and you dont need to be fucked up to commit suicide.

    that being said, youre right whether or not he commited suicide is speculation on my part

  • Len Liechti

    As – I hope – the final word concerning Jeff Buckley’s death, interested readers are recommended to read the closing chapter of Blue Melody, the definitive biography of Tim Buckley by Tim’s friend and longtime fellow band member Lee Underwood. Lee interviewed Jeff before the latter’s death in order to establish his feelings toward his estranged father, and added this chapter to the biog of Tim after Jeff’s own demise. Although brief, it paints a heartfelt first-hand picture of Jeff’s antipathy toward his father, his creative block and his general state of mind that no glib statement from his estate, which may or may not have had an interest in finding his death not suicide, can convey. Jeff Buckley may not have been a substance abuser, but he was clearly a very troubled young man. Readers should draw their own conclusions.

    Happily, Shuggie Otis, for all his reclusiveness, seems to have avoided that perilous fate that so often seems to await gifted progeny of famous parents.

  • In case somebody might be interested I had posted a long time ago this very funky 45 featuring Shuggie while a teenager with Preston Love:

  • DinTX

    hey- thanks for this – i had checked out the Lukabop cd from the library i work at a few years back and weirdly the only songs i could recall were the ones from freedom flight. i checked again the other day to check it out and it looks that someone stole the CD!!! Bastards!!! thanks for this at least! we did have HotRats still in the collection (funny we have 4 copies in the system and none have been “lost”) so i got to hear Shuggie bopping along on Peaches (which in my shitty camry damn near sounds alot like the wind coming through the busted moonroof)… DinTX

  • Mathieu

    Thank you for this review, I got the Raven two fer and I’m really enjoying it. Now this is feeling with a guitar.

  • yo alejandrothanks for that listen! awesome. picked up the Luakabop re-mastered ‘Inspiration Information’, great album thanks RisingStorm

  • donkey_shot

    the luaka bop (and subsequently the raven twofer) release of 2001 was my introduction to shuggie otis, too. I then searched out the kooper/otis collaboration which, while featuring shuggie`s masterful guitar playing, is still very much “al kooper`s thing” (with all the pros and cons that this entails, such as al kooper`s often slightly off-key vocals, lol)

    to my pleasant surprise, I then found two further recordings, both also made in 1969, and both featuring some already very advanced guitar antics courtesy of shuggie otis. the albums are “cold shot” by the johnny otis show, as well as “snatch and the poontangs”, currently still available as a twofer on ace records (uk) via e.g.

    while “snatch…” is an “adult-oriented” one-off release featuring dirty language and jokes set to music, the playing is very r`n`b-oriented and incredibly tight: there`s even a “soft-porn version” of “willie and the hand-jive” (here titled “hey shine”) that features shuggie`s incredibly fluid guitar – at all of fifteen years of age. now just what will he have made of all the dirty jokes on “snatch and the poontangs”, one may wonder…?

    in all, highly recommended!

  • Jay

    Choosing to go swimming with your clothes on is less or more rare than choosing drowning as a method of taking your own life because you are angry at your father and frustrated with making your 2nd LP?

  • Chris

    Nice to hear the original version of Strawberry Letter 23. Very cool!

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