Monday, November 24, 2014

Song of the Day: Shuggie Otis - Inspiration Information (1974)

A few months ago I finished reading The Rock Snob's Dictionary, which is a semi-satirical book that details everything alleged "rock snobs" know about music that the average person does not. There are a lot of artists featured in the book that I was already familiar with, but also a lot that I wasn't, and I tried to check most of them out as I was reading about them. This book helped me discover a good 8-10 artists that I'm really excited to have finally heard, as well as another several artists that I know I never want to hear again. I'm sure I'll be featuring many of the artists this book helped me discover in the coming weeks and months, such as The Flatlanders, E.S.G., and Gene Clark, but up first is Shuggie Otis, who is thus far my favorite artist the book turned me on to. 

Here's a bit about Shuggie- He's the son of 50's star Johnny Otis, he began playing and recording professionally at the age of 15, his debut album came out when he was 18, he was invited to be the second guitarist in The Rolling Stones at 21 (taking the place of Mick Taylor, who had just quit; When Shuggie turned the gig down, it went to Ron Wood), and he also released his masterpiece at age 21, the album Inspiration Information, of which he played every instrument and this song is the title track. When that album received rave reviews and commercially flopped in 1974, Shuggie went into semi-retirement and obscurity, not releasing any further music until the 2000's. 

The easiest way to classify Shuggie is that he was Prince before Prince. He was a musical savant who began recording very early, played every instrument himself, produced himself, forged a style that drew equally from rock, soul, funk, and jazz, was a truly gifted guitarist, and was a very fair-skinned black man with cool hair and a strange mustache. But whereas Prince's early career failures (tepid sales for his 1980 masterpiece Dirty Mind, being booed off the stage opening for The Rolling Stones that same year) fueled him into another stratosphere of greatness, Shuggie allowed those same failures to convince him to stop making music. It's a sad story. Some people are cut out to use failure productively, others are not. But man oh man, the genius was there. For anyone wondering how pop/soul music evolved from the late-60's psychedelic stylings of Sly Stone and Arthur Lee to the late-70's pop/disco sounds of Michael Jackson and Prince, Shuggie's work is a prime cog in that evolution. 

The concept of being a snob in any field is one I struggle with whether or not to embrace. On the one hand, I don't like being pretentious, and I prefer to be someone who champions quality and tries to find larger audiences for it as opposed to snickering in my exclusivity. I'd much rather great obscure bands (and films, and television shows, etc.) find more people to appreciate them than to revel in what I know that others don't. For great art to survive and thrive, it needs paying audiences. The casualty of a great talent like Shuggie Otis is that audience was never found, and thus the art stopped coming. But one thing I do embrace about the snob label is that the best snobs are always searching for more understanding, more works to admire, more greatness to appreciate. They're always championing the unfairly forgotten parts of history that deserved more recognition, and without them, there wouldn't be any books trying to tell people who Shuggie Otis was. So today, at least, I'm begrudgingly proud to be a Rock Snob.

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on June 13, 2014

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