April 26th, 2013 | Interviews

amy hagemeier

One of the most sampled musicians of all time, Shuggie Otis has kept a low profile for over three decades, and not of his own choosing. Despite having a famous father (Johnny Otis of “Hand Jive” fame) and playing with greats such as Etta James, Frank Zappa, and Louis Jordan starting at the age of 12 (he almost joined the Rolling Stones), his own albums in the 70s met with great praise from fellow musicians but damning indifference from the record executives who might have fomented an audience for his uniquely soft but stirring, soulful tunes, such as “Strawberry Letter 23” which was a huge hit when covered by the Brothers Johnson in 1977. Hip-hop artists such as Outkast, Beyonce, and even Color Me Badd have been sampling and singing the praises of Shuggie since the 90s, but it wasn’t until the past year that Otis has finally broken back into the mainstream, with a new album about to come out, leased by Sony. We caught up with him shortly after a decidedly interesting show at the Echoplex, one of his only performances before heading off to Australia and places around the world. This interview by D.M. Collins.

So I was at your recent live show and I noticed that Johnny Rotten was in the audience—when new wave and punk bands were getting started, what did you think of them?
Well, I wasn’t into punk music. So that’s all I can say. It didn’t appeal to me. Maybe there were some good things, but I didn’t hear ‘em.
At the time, you were doing pretty well for yourself. Around that same era I think is when the Brothers Johnson came out with a version of your song ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ that was a huge hit. What happened in the 70s that was so good for you? And why didn’t we see as much of you after that?
The reason people didn’t see much of me is easy to explain—I went to record company after record company for about 40 years trying to get a record deal and getting a ‘no’ every time. It’s as simple as that. And why? I’ll never know the answer. Literally, all those years. And 2012 comes along and I get a phone call in February from Sony UK. I was just getting ready to do a deal. I had two options—there was Mos Def, who was putting a record company together, and I talked to Wax Poetics Records. So word must’ve got around because shortly after I talked to Wax Poetics I got a phone call from London. It’s so funny because they say they want the album now and the ironic part is I had pitched the album to them three times before, and they said no. I said, ‘Look, I got the album, it’s ready to go, I just have to master it.’ I leased it to them under my label, Shugiterius Records, so I’m not signed to anyone for anything right at the moment. It’ll be a double CD coming out April 12th. The re-release of Inspiration Information with four bonus cuts with songs that I shelved, and also this album of 13 songs that nobody has ever heard. They were recorded between 1974 and 1990.
What happened in 1990? Did you see people start appreciating your older stuff in a way that they hadn’t in the 80s?
I started seeing it a little bit. I didn’t see it as much as I see now. I thought people had forgotten completely about me for years. But nobody needs to feel sorry for me because I had the best years of my life during that time, honestly. I’m not saying it’s bad now—it’s great now. I was kicked out of the business, that’s the way I feel. I can’t name one person when every record company turned me down. So the way I see it is they didn’t need Shuggie Otis. It didn’t hurt my feelings. I was a little bitter at first back in the early 70s. When I would think about it sometimes … I’d wonder why, but it wouldn’t matter because the next week I’d be going to another record company with my fingers crossed and getting the same reaction. It got to the point where I always knew what the answer would be. If I were to tell the story to someone who never heard of me, they’d say I’m lying. But it’s true. I never stopped playing music, I never stopped writing, I never stopped recording in my father’s studio. That’s how this stuff is able to come out. Sometimes I feel like people think it’s my fault that I was out of the business. I never did anything. I didn’t kick myself off of Epic Records for no reason, you know? They didn’t give me a reason why they didn’t want to keep me on. I was in the middle of my fourth album and they heard some of it but apparently they didn’t like it. Now it’s so ironic because I’m back on Epic again. It’s different people, obviously.
And many of the bands Epic did release have been forgotten, yet you’ve been remembered. People, fans, worked hard to spread the word about your music.
I’m blessed because I assume there’s many more people like me. Who knows? Maybe they’ll get their chance one day too. I’m getting mine now so I’m working and going places and we’re having a positive reaction. I’ll never quit. I never did quit and I never will. I would do gigs through the years with other people, too, so it’s not like I said no. If somebody would call me up for a gig it would be a miracle just having a gig. Times were rough and a lot of times I had to get day jobs and stuff, but I did that just so I could stay alive.
No shame in that. I’m interviewing you on my lunch break from my day job.
Of course not. That’s why I don’t want to mention what the jobs are because, you know—a job is a job. I had fun on some of them. I didn’t have the studio available to me at one point. My father moved up north and eventually I did because I wanted to live up north also. It was a couple years after I moved up there that my father put the studio together. I almost felt like the cards were against me … well, actually they were. For years and years and years. Even my father wouldn’t help me many times. I felt like I was disliked at times by my father, as well as other people. Me and my father have our own personal things but as far as him not wanting to help me out with my career, I’m still kind of like … questioning that. When I first moved up north I asked him one day—I was painting a barn for him—when he was gonna put the studio equipment back together? He said, ‘I’m not.’ I couldn’t believe my ears and I just kept painting and forgot about it. Next thing I know about a year later he puts the studio together and he’s recording like crazy. But he wasn’t calling me for any sessions. Finally, he called me for a few sessions. At one point I think my father didn’t really want to be involved with me. I was pretty opinionated about what I wanted to do and I was pretty outspoken. With some people it’s hard for them to take a person, especially their son, maybe not sharing the same beliefs. I know that feeling because I have two sons.
Was he religious and you weren’t religious?
No, no. Speaking of religion, I grew up with no religious background. My father used to say there was no god and my mother was quiet. I believe that she probably did believe. Her mother was very religious—she was Catholic and went to church every Sunday. Deep down inside of me I had a feeling about God ever since I was a little tot. But it must’ve come from my grandmother or a good friend of the family happened to be Redd Foxx’s mother and she was very religious. She would bake birthday cakes for me and stuff. But when I was probably about 4 or 5 my father one night brings home three crosses for me and my two sisters so I figured this guy must have something somewhere in him. At that point I wasn’t thinking about any kind of god or anything at that point. For years, I was pretty much a non-believer. I was totally ignorant to that whole thing. Now I’m just the opposite. I came about it on my own. I had experiences myself that taught me about what I know and what I believe.
I don’t want to pry too much into it …
I’m not religious. I’m more spiritually minded. I don’t know too much about religions, I don’t study religions. I’m not really into it. I’m into music and I’m into writing stories. Back in 1999 I realized I could write stories, mostly movie ideas. I could write short stories as well as long ones too. The long ones will be the movies if I get lucky. One of the things I want to do is at least start writing my short stories because I’ve written tons of ‘em. I’m not saying I have a bunch of ‘em finished, but I have a whole lot of ideas.
You were definitely ahead of your time—the proof of that is that in the 90s (and earlier than that) a lot of your sounds were being used by lots of people. When the G-Funk sound came out, a lot your stuff was sampled. Was that a success story for you?
Yeah, it was success story you might say. When the Brothers Johnson did it that’s a success story in itself. They had a gigantic hit and was in a couple movies—Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown—and it’s well known all over the world. When Beyoncé did it, that was another success story. DJ Quik sampled it, R. Kelly sampled it, Yo-Yo, Tevin Campbell, Akon and there’s a whole lot more that I don’t even know. A lot of people have sampled it, legally and illegally.
Have you ever been in your car and you turn on the radio and you hear an unlicensed sample and you just get mad?
I never heard one of mine. Yet. Somebody did sample one of my songs and it became like a million-seller. They sampled ‘Aht Uh Mi Hed,’ a group called Absolute Beginner, a German rap group back in 98. I heard about it late but I told Sony about it and their attorneys are supposed to be working on it. They didn’t give us any credit. There was even a court hearing where I lost. My publisher at the time had a court hearing and they lost. I don’t know how—but I have a suspicion. Anyway, I’m laughing because now my life is focused on me. Working, recording and touring is a big focus right now. I got a lot of dates ahead of me and I’m praying for me to come.
Is it going to be the same band that I saw you play with at the Echoplex?
More or less, yeah. Minus two of those people, I won’t say which ones.
Is your son still going to be in the band?
My son, yes. And my brother just joined up as of less than a week ago. My brother’s playing drums with me and it’s great—I’m finally getting the sound to go where I want it to go. I guess maybe because we’re blood, I dunno.
You come from a musical dynasty. Your father was a wonderful musician, your son was a very good musician and now your brother. Who else in your family is musical?
I have two sons. My oldest son is Johnny III—his nickname is Lucky—and he’s also a musician. He plays bass, guitar, keyboards and he sings. He’s working on an album as well. My other son has an album that’s out right now on iTunes under his name Eric Otis. So they’re into their own thing but Eric’s gonna join up for a while. He asked to be in the group and that’s really something because he didn’t want to be on stage for 14 years. He’s a great guitarist so it’ll be a great addition to the band. Some of my old friends as well. Larry Douglas on the trumpet, Albert Wing on tenor sax, Michael Turre on baritone sax and flute, my brother Nick on drums, James Manning on bass, a guy named Swang on keyboard and Eric and me.
Back in the 70s, didn’t you record largely by yourself?
Back in ‘72 I started on my third album. It was early in the year and we did some tracks at Columbia Studios. I was still with the Johnny Otis Show and we had a tour to do in July, so we had to prepare for that. When we were in England, my father talked to Columbia executives in the United Kingdom and he told them that instead of a cash deal, he wanted a studio built in the back of the house. They went for it and that’s where I finished the album up.
That’s very interesting you bring up being in your father’s band—when you’re on stage and you’re looking at your sons, does it bring back memories?
Both of my sons played in my band years ago. I don’t know what my dad was thinking—all I know is how I felt and it felt good.
Through your father, you had all kinds of collaborations. B.B. King said you were his favorite guitarist in 1970. You worked with Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and others.
I never worked with Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland actually—and I’d like to make a statement if I could. Somebody told me recently that there’s a book that says I was in Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s band and I was at fault for getting the whole band fired. It’s the biggest lie I ever heard. I never played in Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s band, number one. I did play in back of him once with him and B.B. King. They called me on stage to play one number. But that’s the closest I ever got to Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. It was great because he was one of my favorite singers.
It is true, though, that you worked with Frank Zappa in the 60s?
Yes, I did work with Frank. He called my dad and said he needed a rhythm section. He wanted my dad on keyboard so I came along. We did three songs that night. ‘Peaches En Regalia’ is the only one that made it.
When I think of your music I think of it being very complex but very, for lack of a better word, lovely and introspective. The thought of you playing with Frank Zappa, who is the king of quirkiness—was it tricky?
Not at all, no. One of the easiest guys to work with in the world. Real nice guy. He showed me the bass part and he had it written out. He taught it to me on the piano and worked with me on it and then we cut it. He was a big influence on me as far as wanting to write music and stuff, too. The first time I met him, he asked my father to come over. He was doing a spread in my LIFE magazine and they had him interview a lot of different people. It was about the 60s and the hippies and whatnot. In his section he interviewed my dad because he was one of his favorites. He used to go see dad when he was a teenager at the El Monte Legion Stadium like every weekend. I went to his house in Topanga Canyon and we played that night. That’s when he found out I could play the guitar. He also came to my father’s radio show and that was recorded. I heard it recently and I couldn’t figure out who was playing what. I thought, ‘Wow, was that me playing?’ I didn’t know I could play that good.
He hung out with a wild cast of people at the time. Did you ever meet any of the other people in his scene like the GTOs or Wild Man Fischer or Alice Cooper?
No, I didn’t hang out with anybody. I was one of those kinds of people who didn’t hang out. I met some people later in the 70s who I hung out with a little bit. I’ve always been pretty much a loner.
I’ve heard that you were on the short list to join the Rolling Stones in the early 70s. Why didn’t that happen? The rumor is, you turned them down.
I had received a phone call one afternoon. It was from Billy Preston. He told me that he was in the room with the Stones and then asked me for them if I would be interested in taking the second guitar spot. I told him that I had put my own band together—I was playing that night—and implied the necessity to turn down such a prestigious offer, being that my Inspiration/Information style was emanating at the time.
You were raised at the height of the Civil Rights era—what was it like being in a situation where your father was white but he was playing with a lot of black artists?
I was pretty much right in the middle of it as all black people were. Also I was closer to it in another way because my father got into politics at one time and he was running for office. He ran for assemblyman once. He lost that and then came back to music.
When you were young, was it kind of like going to school and learning about music in a formal institution with classical training and transcription or did you learn it sort of organically by playing?
I took two lessons from a teacher to learn how to arrange and compose and how to write for movies. He was a professor at UCLA and I took private lessons at his house. His name was Albert Harris.
What year was that? How old were you?
I guess about 15. I loved writing music. I don’t read very well but I write. I wrote all the parts on Inspiration Information. I heard someone say I had a ghost writer. I said, ‘No way.’ I wrote everything.
A lot of people want me to ask if you played with certain musicians. Did you play with Louis Jordan? Is that true?
Yeah, it’s true. In the studio only. It was hilarious actually because Louis Jordan is such a character. He had brought another sax player with him and my father and I had laid all the band tracks down so all he had to do is come and do the vocals and the sax parts. He dogged this sax player around so badly. He’d be cussin’ at him and I felt so bad for the guy. I did play behind Louis Jordan and a whole bunch of other famous people like Joe Turner, Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, Etta James—she was very easy to work with. We never had a problem. I hear that she could be hard to work with but I was never in her band. I backed her with the Johnny Otis Show a couple times. I had a lot of interesting times in my life. My fans shouldn’t feel sorry for me at all. I was having fun all those years. Sure, I wanted to be out there but I just didn’t have the opportunity. And I wanted to come out in a big way. I didn’t have the desire to get a band together and hustle little small tours and little gigs. I guess being with Epic Records spoiled me a little bit. Here I was at 15 coming out with a successful record, so I suppose that got to me a little bit. I wanted to be presented like I was presented before. I didn’t want to look like some has-been trying to make a comeback and playing his old tunes. I don’t mind playing the old tunes now, though—it’s fun. For some reason it’s more fun playing these old tunes now than it was ten years ago. I dunno. Music is timeless—if you like it, you like it. I guess the bottom line is I can’t wait to start playing the new stuff.