Guitarist Shuggie Otis steps centerstage
By Greg Cahill
It was love at first sight. At a time when most kids were playing sandlot baseball and dreaming about joining the big leagues, Shuggie Otis had his sights set on the stage. At age 4, he started drumming on his own traps, a three-piece white-pearl drum set that his famous father, bandleader Johnny Otis, had given him for Christmas.
But it was the guitar that really intrigued him. Not just any guitar, but a bright red glittered Telecaster that Pasadena R&B wonders Don Harris and Dewey Terry used to play whenever they came over to Otis’ big house in the Sugar Hill district of Los Angeles.
“I remember seeing my father’s band rehearse and seeing Don and Dewey come in with their red-glitter guitar,” says Shuggie, reclining on the sofa in the living room of his home in Petaluma. “I may have been more interested in the drums at the time, but the guitar thing was something that I was watching in the back of my mind.”
Johnny Otis Jr.–the oldest son of the R&B pioneer and the prototypical blues prodigy–made his recording debut in 1962 at the tender age of 12, playing guitar behind former Raylette singer Ethel Fort.
In the past four decades, the 42-year-old guitarist, songwriter, and arranger has played his tasteful staccato licks behind most of the legends of R&B and recorded with everyone from Charles Brown to Sugarcane Harris, Louis Jordan to Frank Zappa. His own recording career peaked in the early to mid-’70s with a string of solo albums on the Epic label. Most recently, he played acoustic rhythm guitar and arranged about half of the songs on Johnny Otis & His Orchestra’s Grammy-nominated Spirit of the Black Territory Bands (Arhoolie).
He currently leads a crack four-piece blues band of his own that features his brother Nicky on drums and his son Lucky (Johnny Otis III) on bass. That band performs this week at Magnolia’s in Santa Rosa.
Not surprisingly, Otis grew up surrounded by music, mostly the early rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and R&B heard on his father’s popular records and radio and television shows. At 13, he began performing R&B on nightclub stages with his father. In the early evening hours, they held court at the Club House in Santa Monica, moving at closing time to an after-hours joint called the Blue Bunny in neighboring Montebello.
As his interest in the guitar grew, Shuggie began ditching classes and eventually dropped out of high school, all with the blessing of his father, who figured that Shuggie’s future lay in the music industry anyway.
In 1967, he recorded his first sessions with Johnny Otis and His Orchestra, playing a simmering blues guitar on his father’s 1968 comeback album Cold Shot (Cadet). It was Frank Zappa who suggested to the owners of Cadet Records that they give Johnny Otis a call. On the strength of that platter, Johnny signed a lucrative major label deal with Epic Records. That deal helped set up a number of important recording projects for them and paved the way for Shuggie’s solo recording career.
In 1969, Shuggie recorded three tracks for Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats (Barking Pumpkin) album, one of which–“Peaches en Regalia”–was used on the album. But 1970 proved a high-water mark for Shuggie. At 15, he released his solo recording debut, Here Comes Shuggie Otis! (Epic-BN 26511), and shared songwriting credits with his father on “Shuggie’s Boogie.” Johnny Otis produced the album. Later that year, Shuggie, sporting a full-blown Afro, was showcased on the classic Live at Monterey! album, performing an impressive live version of “Shuggie’s Boogie” and backing such blues and R&B legends as Joe Turner, Roy Brown, Little Esther Phillips, Ivory Joe Hunter, Pee Wee Crayton, and Margie Evans.
He hit his stride with 1974’s ambitious Inspiration Information, which features Sly Stone-style ’70s funk arrangements that hold up surprisingly well two decades later. Unfortunately, Otis spent so long recording the album that the record label dropped his contract. Ironically, keyboardist and ace session player Billy Preston phoned Otis around that time to say that the Rolling Stones wanted to ask him to join the band and fill the lead guitar spot vacated by Mick Taylor. Shuggie declined.
“I had my own group. My own label deal,” he says. “I just wanted to do what I want to do. I had my own identity.”
These days, Shuggie has revamped his own band and is looking for a niche for his unique blend of power blues, rock, jazz, funk, and country.
“I think it’s a real honor to be regarded in some quarters as a great bluesman, but I don’t even consider myself to be a blues player,” he says. “I’m a music man. What I want to do is play it all. Believe me, I’m thankful to be known at all, but I don’t want to be labeled. I don’t think it’s right to label people.
“All I know is that I’m anxious to get it goin’. “
Shuggie Otis performs with the Otis Connection on Friday, Dec. 22, at 9 p.m. at Magnolia’s, 107 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. Tickets are $5 in advance, $6 at the door. 526-1006.
From the Dec. 14-20, 1995 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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