Listening to Shuggie Otis' incredibly mellow, technically brilliant, soulfully transcendent R&B classic Inspiration Information feels a lot like taking a lazy walk on a sun-drenched California afternoon while under the influence of some truly mind-expanding psychedelics. Originally released in 1974, the album featured Shuggie playing everything but the horns and strings himself, and he wrote the arrangements for those instruments, too. A master of blues guitar who was compared at the ripe old age of 15 to the likes of Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King, Shuggie also was one of the first to explore the use of drum machines, and also played pretty mean vibraphone, electric organ, and piano. This re-release contains not just the complete 1974 album, newly remastered from the original tapes, but also four choice cuts from his 1971 album, Freedom Flight.
In a field of mostly cookie-cutter crap, Shuggie's music stands out more than 20 years on like a "blue flower echo[ing] from a cherry cloud," as he wrote in "Strawberry Letter 23" (which became a top ten hit for The Brothers Johnson). Some of the tracks cut a pretty straightforward funk groove ("Sparkle City"), while others kick out blues jams ("Sweet Thang") or psychedelic, near-techno pulsating gems ("XL-30"). "Aht Uh Mi Hed" mixes organ, beats, tambourine, guitar bits, strings, chimes, horns, harp (not harmonica -- harp), and what sounds like a sampled eagle's cry in an atmospheric prog-funk gumbo that reminds me as much of The Moody Blues as it does Sly & the Family Stone. "Happy House" has an almost rap delivery to some of the lyrics, while the epic (twelve-minute-plus) "Freedom Flight" is an amazing progressive jazz instrumental, capped off by a fascinating exchange of perfectly matched saxophone honks and guitar squeals between Shuggie and a tenor man named Richard Aplanalp.
Shuggie Otis' music is so incredible, it's hard to believe he never became the legend he ought to have been. Who knows what would have happened if he had taken The Rolling Stones up on their offer to be their new guitarist when Mick Taylor left in 1974. At least he gave us Inspiration Information -- the kind of album you listen to and think, "now this is why I listen to music."
Luaka Bop, c/o Narada, 4650 N. Port Washington Rd., Milwaukee, WI 53212; http://www.luakabop.com