Redemption Song

Twenty-seven years ago, Shuggie Otis released one amazing record. Maybe now it'll get its due.

When the record was released in 1975, it sold poorly, although the title tune rose to No. 56 on the R&B charts. Still, Otis felt confident enough in the viability of his solo career to turn down an offer by the Rolling Stones to replace guitarist Mick Taylor.

"I said no as fast as I did to Blood, Sweat & Tears, David Bowie, Spirit, Buddy Miles, Billy Preston. It wasn't because I had to be the leader, but at that point I couldn't be a sideman to anybody. And I still don't want to."

Soon after, Epic canceled its deals with Otis and his dad without explanation. In the 26 years since, only one Shuggie Otis album has been released, the 1994 best-of collection Shuggie's Boogie: Shuggie Otis Plays the Blues. Over the years, numerous rumors have circulated about his personal life, all of which are, according to Otis, scurrilous.

"There was an article in Rolling Stone years ago that mentioned that I had retired at 22, and that's the biggest fucking lie that I ever heard," he asserts forcefully. "I didn't retire -- I never gave up on anything. I was thrown out of the business. But I wasn't the only one who had that happen and I got over it."

There were also persistent rumors of health problems dogging Otis -- another story that enrages him. But even now, the wrinkles in his public image aren't completely worked out: The press information Luaka Bop included with the CD repeats both the retirement and health reports. (While Otis is eager to get Inspiration Information out to a wider audience, he is at the mercy of Luaka Bop and Sony, which own the master tapes.)

It seems implausible that a teenage prodigy responsible for an authentic soul classic would not release original material for more than 25 years. Even Otis scratches his head while recounting his post-Inspiration Informationhistory: "Hmmm, I'm trying to think what the hell I did do in the '90s," he muses. According to Otis, he took a number of day jobs and raised his two sons, Lucky and Eric, who played in his blues band and now have bands of their own. Otis also recorded a live session with Etta James in 1986 and played on a few of his dad's projects. In 1992, the Shuggie Otis Band recorded an album in Birmingham, England, after it played that city's Blues Summit festival, but the label, Big Bear, shelved the project and still won't return Otis' calls. When queried, Otis seems unable or unwilling to give a satisfying answer as to why he went from almost famous to industry outcast.

One thing's for sure: Getting dropped from a major label was a far more devastating blow to an artist's career in the '70s. At that time the infrastructure of niche independent labels and underground music scenes -- which can now support a musician who fails to crack the Top 40 -- didn't exist. Without the means to reach an audience, perhaps Otis' career really was, as he puts it, "thrown in the trash can." Or maybe his frustration over his soured deal undermined his confidence, and with it, his drive to make music -- like a pitcher who loses his poise on the mound after being hit by a line drive.

Avowed Otis fan Tim Gane of synth/ drone band Stereolab is similarly befuddled. Of Inspiration Information's sound he says, "It's almost like a new style of music that could've developed but never did. And that's the problem. It never developed past this record."

At 47 Otis is done struggling with the possibilities of what could have been, although his voice still reveals a restrained bitterness when talking about the past.

"For a few years, I was kind of angry, but I'm not crying the blues about it," he says. "I'm glad that I lived my life the way I did and that I'm still here living it."

Otis hopes that the rerelease of his lost masterwork will generate enough attention for him to find a recording deal and line up the resources for another band. He's been recording a bit in his home studio, and his range of influences hasn't narrowed -- he's still wrestling with "traditional blues, R&B, funk, classical, jazz, and good old rock 'n' roll." Those same ingredients made for timeless music in 1974, and there's no reason why they can't again today.

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