Shuggie Otis: Inspiration Information

One particularly hazy night during my sophomore year of college, my friends and I sat around a dorm room in various states of inebriation taking turns listening to our favourite songs. When my chance came, I crawled across the cheerio-strewn floor, crushing many on my way to the computer. I managed to type “Aht Uh Mi Head” into the search bar without error, and when Shuggie Otis’ dulcet tones poured from the speaker it was one thing: simply perfect. We were out of our heads; Shuggie knew just how we felt.

Shuggie Otis has proven himself to be one of the kings of psychedelic funk. Johnny Alexander Veliotes, Jr. was born into a musical family; his father Johnny Otis was a musical jack and master of all trades – a singer, talent scout, disc jockey, composer, producer, percussionist, bandleader, and impresario. His mother, Phyllis, coined her son’s nickname of Shuggie (short for sugar), which went on to be the name he was known by in the music world. He began playing music as early as age two, professionally by age twelve. He recorded two sort of solo albums, both of which featured countless famous musicians (such as the late great Etta James, Eddie Vinson, Richard Berry, Louis Jordan, and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, to name a few). However, in 1974, Shuggie released a true solo album, Inspiration Information. For the first time, Shuggie’s soul was released to the masses.

Inspiration Information features nine tracks of honeyed soul, funk, and psychedelic blues. Shuggie wrote, arranged, and played almost every instrument on the album. Each song flows seamlessly into the next, so much so that you don’t even realize when you’ve gone from track one to two, and suddenly realize you’re on track six. Instead of nine disjointed tracks, Inspiration Information flows like a well-narrated set-piece.

The standout moments are up-tempo songs featuring Shuggie’s melodic voice and poetic lyrics, such as the title track “Inspiration Information” and “Aht Uh Mi Head”. The former starts the album off with Shuggie’s silky falsetto, not overpowered by the accompanying instrumental melody. His diction is clear, giving you the feeling that he’s talking directly to you. If you close your eyes you can see green shag carpets, purple faux fur throw pillows, and bell-bottoms filling the room.

In contrast, the spelling of “Aht Uh Mi Head” would imply a change in diction. In fact, Shuggie’s ability to annunciate matches his keen and decisive playing ability. “Ah Uh Mi Head” is much smoother, almost melancholy in comparison to the title track, and feels strangely dislocated from the 70’s aesthetic. It is understated and therefore wonderfully transcendent. As Shuggie croons the phrase “out of my head, things are different” the elongated vowels run the risk of becoming too nasal, but Shuggie’s voice remains velvety and rich, in “Ah Uh Mi Head”, and throughout the album. The instrumental complexities do not detract from the vocals, but instead highlight the sadness of this particular track. Things may be different aht of your head, but they aren’t necessarily better.

The following tracks such as “Happy House” and “Sparkle City” are much more up-beat in both vocals and instrumentals. Shuggie’s voice is layered and harmonized, with a smooth jazz background. The album ebbs and flows as it moves into another melancholy tune, “Rainy Day”, the almost new age techno sounding tracks “Xi 30” and “Pling!”. The album ends with “Not Available”, whose first few notes bring us back to opening of the first track. Without vocals, “Not Available” is a supple ending to the arch of Inspiration Information.

If you could make red velvet cake into a musical album, it would be Inspiration Information. The first bite is exciting and drool-inducing. Towards the middle you think, ‘can I finish this? It’s just too good!’ and as you make your way to the end, you drop your fork with a clatter and a contented sigh. Sweet to the last bite, Shuggie’s nickname was well earned. Inspiration Information is an album that warrants its cult-classic status amongst the sweet-toothed psychedelic-music-lovers of our generation.

Illustration by Sheila Seyfert-Menzel