At Johnny Alexander Veliotes (Shuggie) Otis, Jr.’s suggestion, we scheduled the Blues Blast interview for 7 pm on New Years Eve. We didn’t quite make the deadline as Shuggie was in the studio putting the wraps on track number 16.
“I just finished song number 16 for my next album, within a half hour of talking to you. I thought I was done at 15. I’d forgotten about it until this morning. It just needed a little third vocal on it. I’m really havin’ fun with this new music and can’t wait to get out there with it.
My detractors say, why is he so gung ho now? Why wasn’t he like that back then? Well, I was happy then. I had a very happy life. I was married and we were bringing up my youngest son. I was being entertained by the entertainment industry and knew that I had reached a certain level of success. I kinda rested on that I guess. But the thing is, I never rested on trying to get a record deal. I must stress that. It sounds rather eerie to say that after forty years. It doesn’t scare me cuz I’ve had a beautiful life. So no one should feel sorry for me. I had better days back then than I’m having now. But still, I love life and I’m not ready to die.
Right now, I’m just really crazy about it-The new year and my new concept. I want to go out with my new band. I’ve already alerted a couple of the guys. If anybody reading this wants to hire us, I’m gonna have a seven piece. It’ not gonna be just one kind of music and we’re shooting for bigger venues too because my sound is kinda loud sometimes. Not all the time. With the Johnny Otis show you wouldn’t play loud. With my own group, I would play semi-loud for the Blues. Jimi Hendrix was not loud all the time either. Music is about accents.”
At his mention of Hendrix we seize the moment to ask about comparisons to Hendrix that started when Shuggie was a mere teenaged, seasoned sideman, stepping out from the shadows of his father’s famous wings.
“With my dad, see that was cool, I could always be a sideman with him and then it turned out I didn’t want to be a sideman to anyone else. Actually, I didn’t hear many compare me to JH, but I felt it. I was such a fan. I adore him. He was born around the same time of the month as I was. When I found that out, I was like wow, it attracted me. I’d heard one of his songs on the radio and went out and read the liner notes on the album and found that we were both born in late November.
When I finally heard my name compared to his it probably scared me. I went out and met him when he was signing autographs. I saw him jam once up close and twice in concert. Oh God, he was such an influence on me.”
The evolution of Shuggie Otis was of course seeded by his father, the great Johnny Otis, known by many as the “Godfather of Rhythm & Blues. When Shuggie talks about his evolution, a veritable barrage of R&B legends dot his history.
“I got to know Don & Dewey as a little tot running around they house when they would come over for rehearsal on Saturday’s. Don would later became Blues/Rock violinist Don “Sugarcane” Harris. I remember clearly that Don had a red glitter Telecaster. I was maybe four and have never seen another guitar like that. I was impressed at an early age with music and musical instruments.
My guitar playing just happened. You know, I wanted a guitar and um, when I was about ten I would look through the Sears catalogs and pick out my favorite ones. But I never got a Sears guitar. When I was eleven, my father came home with an electric guitar and small amp.
It surprised me a little bit cuz he had given me a drum set when I was four for Christmas. He knew I wanted a guitar. That first guitar was hard to play and the amp didn’t have much variation in tone. Being inexperienced, I couldn’t care less. I loved it. It was a Teisco Del Rey Japanese guitar. I don’t know what the amp was. I was listening to Rock back then and the British groups as well as all the Motown stuff. I was thinking about this just the other day.
I used to listen to B.B. King back when I was about nine, cuz my dad had a radio show and would have albums sprawled around. That’s when I remember listening to him and being really impressed by him. I remember looking at an album cover and he had a Gibson arch top, maple guitar with no cutaways and a single coil pickup. I can’t remember that name of the album but he’s got his eyes closed and he’s singing.
The record has Big Band arrangements and that made a big impression on me. But at that point, I still wasn’t ready to touch the guitar. It was when the Beatles came out and sparked the guitar craze that I started to crave one. It’s a craze nowadays too for some reason. So I started tryin’ to do it; Rock & Roll, Rhythm & Blues and later, Blues.
So yeah, I taught myself on a chord book. I learned all the chords out of a book. And then, I didn’t do any reading for a couple of years. Then I had a couple of lessons and learned how to read a little bit more than the little bit I knew from my father teaching me to read when he gave me the drum set early on. He also taught me harmony and theory on the piano as well, actually.
So when I got the guitar lessons, the only thing was, I didn’t like practicing that type of music. It was hard for me. It was standards, Jazz style. It was great and I learned some of ‘em. But I’m a slow, slow, reader. Anyway after a year of playing, my dad said, ‘Come on, join the group’.
Now I really dig it and appreciate it and respect it. I am glad I have that little knowledge. And I still love to read and write. It’s something that I know I can do. I don’t do a lot of writing of music on paper these days. Occasionally I do. A few months ago I did. I got the guitar and I just started writing. Every now and then I’ll do it and when I do it, I like it. Lately, I’ve been doing things on the synthesizer. I shied away from samples and stuff for a long time. It’s like, I can do all that orchestral stuff I wanted to do as a kid.
When I record, I like to do it the old fashioned way. I’m working with a digital work station right now and man, it beats pro tools to death. I’m working on an album right now and am inspired by the music I’m writing and recording. I’m really going full-fledged into it, working it constantly. The work station doesn’t say no to you whereas a computer will sometimes. I’ve had enough with that frustration on the computer.”
We ask Shuggie about his Live In Williamsburg album released in October of 2014.
“It’s working out fine. I love that album. I think it’s great. I wanna tell you a quick story about it. The album isn’t really a tight show album. It’s really laid back and everybody’s just so happy that it sounds like they don’t have to play the charts. There’s such a spirit within that album that surprised me when I first heard it. It knocked me out. I became very emotional about it. I had it here in my studio months before it came out.
Here is the story. When we got to the sound check that day, they had several Marshall amps. I got the one I wanted and it sounded great. I could get the sounds I wanted. The clean, the distortion and everything in between, all that. That night when we get on stage, the amp sounds like it’s getting ready to blow. It’s making all these rocket ship noises and I’m trying to deal with it.
I was pissed off and asked, hey don’t they have any other amps back there. They said no, they’re all gone. I said, ‘what?’ For a minute I thought somebody was trying to sabotage me as that had happened before. I had to deal with the sound and it was all distortion. I didn’t want to ask my son to trade amps cuz he was happy with his. I didn’t want to disturb him. I could deal with it.
So when I listen to the album now, it has such a personality to it. Not just with the guitar but with everybody. Everybody’s spirit was just so high and the audience was right there with us. You know, I knew that we were being video-taped but I wasn’t really thinking about it. At some point I actually forgot about it. I see maybe that’s what drove some of the guys to be somewhat animated. The video came out really nice and the guy did a good editing job.
Pressed for musical friendships and hangout partners, Shuggie continues as we toss names at him. We start with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vincent.
“Well yeah, we were good friends. He was always very kind to me, a buddy on the road. When I thank of him, I thank of somebody I’m related to, somebody in the family. He was a very nice, warm human being. His playing and singing were great. He helped me through some things when I was younger. He was very sympathetic to my problems.
It was kinda funny, he always wanted to play guitar and I would tell him I’d like to learn how to play alto. So he said, ‘I’ll teach you to play alto and you teach me guitar. And we really meant that from the heart. You know it was one of those kinda things. We never got around to it, but it sounded like it would be really cool to get around to it one day.”
Shuggie suggests that T-Bone Walker, “Godfather Of The Electric Blues Guitar” was like family to him.
“T-bone Walker was friendly to me as well. Same kind of feeling you get from somebody who is your uncle. I didn’t spend as much time with T-bone as I did with Eddie but when I would see him, especially in his later years, we would go out to visit him in the place where he was staying and being cared for. I’d take a couple of guitars and me and James Bradshaw, another guitar player with my father’s band and Margie Evans the singer, would drive out to see him.
We then ask him about guitarist Mel Brown which extends into a roll call of artists that have influenced his artistry. We also throw in Dyke of Dyke & The Blazers.
“Yes Mel Brown played in my father’s band. Like wow. I love his playin’. That song, “Eighteen Pounds of Unclean Chitlins”, ha ha! That’s one of my favorite ones. It’s really cold. I love that one.”
“Oh yeah, I met Dyke (Arlester Christian). He was a cool guy. I saw him up at El Dorado Studio in Hollywood. My dad’s studio. I saw him up there a few times. He recorded some tracks there or something. He acknowledged me. He was a nice person. We used to play that song “Funky Broadway” forever, before I ever met him. We played that in clubs and after hours clubs along with “Knock On Wood”, “Get Ready”, “Soul Man”, “Respect” and all the James Brown hits back in that period. I played those songs every night when I played with my dad.
Son House is definitely one of my favorites. One of my favorite favorites as far as Blues guitar goes. When he sings and plays, oh man. I can’t even listen to him right now. I have to be in a certain mood. When I was drinkin’, you can laugh if you want, I could really relate to him a whole lot. Heh heh heh, I would listen to those sad songs over and over. Now I think it would probably irritate me, make me sad right now, cuz I’m not drinkin’.”
“Still I will listen to him cuz every now and then I gotta have a fix of that stuff. That’s the way I look at it. I get on somethin’ and sometimes I won’t let it go for awhile. I might let it go for a couple of years and come back. Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins , I think about them. Skip James, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Elmore James and you know, T-Bone Walker of course. And Jr. Wells and Little Walter.
Little Walter is also a big influence on me. Don “Sugarcane” Harris used to tell me that he used to listen to Little Walter and would try to imitate that on his violin. Don said he made his own pickup for the violin by taking a stereo needle from a record player and sticking it on to his violin.
Listening to Jimi Hendrix, you can hear those same licks. A lotta guitar players are playin’ ‘em, but I mention Jimi Hendrix because, at one time, Little Richard’s band consisted of Jimi Hendrix, Don & Dewey and Billy Preston, I think, all at the same time.”
“Dewey I got to know each other because we lived on the same property. There was a guest house on my father’s property that Dewey lived in. One day I finally asked him, “What was Jimi Hendrix really like?” I had already asked other people their opinion years before. There were things that I was told that I don’t wanna mention at all. Anyway, the only thing Dewey could say was, that he was quiet. That’s all you can say about him. He must’ve really been quiet. Wow! “
“I’ve seen, watching some of those videos, that actually he was very private. I didn’t have to watch the videos to tell you that because I met him once and I could tell that he was just, hey, I’m me and I’m not gonna be talkin’ to ya. I didn’t give a sh*t. I didn’t care. I was just a young kid who wanted to shake his hand. I was smilin’, not thinkin’ a bunch of crap. I had no idea what he was probably goin’ through at the time. This was in ’68. I was gonna see him that night at the Hollywood Bowl. You can see that video right now on YouTube. I was there. I was also at the Forum in 1970.”
“Sly Stone is also one of the biggest influences on me. He’s one of those cats that you just can’t deny. Everybody knows he is a giant. It just brings so much to mind. After all these years, I recently met him. He was very kind to me. A very nice man. We used to see each other at Columbia studios but never spoke.
I would see a lot of people at the Columbia complex. I met Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, Arthur Lee. My father knew Arthur Lee as a kid. As a matter of fact there’s a picture he took on the front lawn. The quick story is my dad like to raise pigeons. So on his radio show, he wanted to start a pigeon club. “
“He requested on the air for kids who wanted to be in the pigeon club. They were a little older than me and mostly White. There was one Black guy. He looked kind of Indian. It was Arthur Lee who went on to be the front man of Love. I talked to Arthur about it and he remembered it. I was recording “Stawberry Letter 23” when I met him. I was in the control room by myself listening to it. He came in, kind of nodded his approval and introduced himself, extending his hand. He kind of knew that I was kind of star struck. We turned out to be pretty good friends, like brothers. At one point I played in his group for a minute. I also played with my group on a bill with him.
Gerald Wilson was a great writer and influence on me. When I was a kid I used to see his albums. He knew all those guys that were writing for TV. He was the mastermind behind all that stuff even though his name wasn’t out there like it should have been. That’s one of those thangs that happen to a lot of people. He’s one of the greatest composers of all time.
He brought out so many thangs that he never got credit for. Watching TV throughout my life and then meeting him gradually, before I even got with his daughter (Shuggie’s ex wife and mother of his son Eric) , I’d hear his music on television shows, sitcoms and what have you, over and over and over. All his ideas. I told him about it one day. He just nodded. Some people prefer it that way. “
Blues Blast broaches the subject of Shuggie’s place in the Johnny Otis band by mentioning a YouTube video with the father and son featuring a guest appearance by guitarist Roy Buchanan who took three solos while Shuggie just played rhythm. Some of the comments posted thought Roy Buchanan was a solo hog. Others suggested what Shuggie confirmed. Shuggie also commented on losing his dad.
“I can clear it up. I was just a sideman on the session. I was basically told what to do. Eventually in my career, my father bowed out when I started producing things on my own. Once I started playing all the instruments and what not as well as writing. He didn’t try to hold me back ever, as far as what was gonna come outta me. He wanted the truth to come out of a person. He was all for that.
I tell you, he was bedridden for maybe ten years. He was doing pretty good there for a good part of those ten years. Then, in the last couple of years he started to get a little quiet. Then the last year, he wouldn’t speak at all when I was there. My mother said the same thing though, that he was sleeping a lot of the time. I remember that vision of the last time I saw him. I must’ve felt something, he must’ve felt something cuz I burst out in tears. I was getting ready to leave and saying goodbye to him and bam, I just started crying all of a sudden.
I got a little nervous and said, ‘Okay, I gotta go.’ We were holding hands and he pulled my hand back and said, “No, don’t go.” He looked me straight in the eye and I cried some more. Then I kinda got myself together. Cuz I’m a crybaby when it comes to stuff like that. I fall apart. We didn’t really have a conversation. It was just goodbye. He gave me his thumbs up. Go for it! So I got myself together and went home and you know, that was it. It was probably less than a couple of weeks later that he went to the hospital and died. Later that year I went on tour. That was in 2012.”
Though Shuggie has continued to work, his recorded output other than as a sideman was sparse for years. He couldn’t get a contract with a label. He explained his unique position as a legendary guitarist without industry support.
“The reality of it is, I’m not rich. I can’t live without money. So I have to go out and work. A musician cannot make money these days waiting for his royalties necessarily.
I’m lucky because, I make money through movies like The Dallas Buyers Club which has “Sweet Thang” in it. That along with Pulp Fiction, the Jackie Brown movie, Beyonce sampling my song, along with all the other people who have sampled my stuff, plus the Brother’s Johnson hit with “Strawberry Letter 23″. That money still comes in to this day. One hit can keep you going.”
He explains again, (for the record) why he turned down the Rolling Stones invitation to join as a replacement for Mick Taylor in 1973.
“I want to mention something about the Rolling Stones. When they came out, I was a big fan of them and the Beatles. I don’t like everybody in one particular genre but those were my two favorite British groups. I was past wanting to be a sideman with anyone including my father. I enjoyed playing that kind music. I needed the money and I could get it playing with him. I couldn’t get any record label attention. I did it every year for years. It became funny to me. I’d say, “I’m gonna send this out just so I can laugh afterwards when they say no to me.” It became really comical. Then I’d hear all these people imitating me. And they’re making gigantic hits. Taking little pieces of my music.”
“To be honest with you, I’d sent out a tape of stuff to a lot of people and if you heard the tape and then the music they released, you’d know what I was talking about. I heard all these “Strawberry Letter” ideas and Inspiration Information ideas in the ‘80s. I was strugglin’ back then with day jobs. It was really flattering in a way and kept me goin’. Kept me high, a natural high.”
In 2001 David Byrne of the Talking Heads re-released the Shuggie Otis 1974 classic album, Inspiration Information. It was released again in 2013 which has stimulated interest in Otis’s career. Shuggie shared his thoughts on Byrne’s Shuggie Otis project.
“He licensed it from Sony. I felt great when that happened. I only met him briefly in New York a long time ago on the David Letterman Show and the Conan O’Brien Show. I did a couple of shows in New York and David Byrne introduced me one night. That’s about all I remember about him, except for some of his music. Anyway I felt fantastic about that record coming out again because I always thought, when I was younger and couldn’t get a deal after Epic records, that that album would come out again. Sometimes your intuition works and sometimes you’re willing it to happen.”
“I was too busy using drugs. So that whole thang can really mess up a person. I’m just glad to have just any kind of a spirit today. This is New Year’s Eve and I’m looking very forward to 2015 with all the thangs I’m feelin’ right now. It’s just all kind of emotions. I’m looking forward to having a very happy new year.”
“When I was too busy using drugs, I couldn’t get anyone to represent me. So now I represent myself. I have a working relationship with Cleopatra Records in Los Angeles and I look forward to working with them.
I’m not in a slump. I’m trying to share that inspiration with the world right now. I’m all for the good feeling of the happy new year. Excited about the future.”
Visit Shuggie’s website at www.shuggieotismusic.com
Photos by Arnie Goodman © 2015 Blues Blast Magazine
Interviewer Tee Watts is music director at KPFZ 88.1 fm in Lakeport, CA and road manager for Sugar Pie DeSanto.