An Interview with THE GREAT Shuggie Otis: Οne of the mythical musicians of Blues Soul & Rock history

"Blues means to me first of all my black ancestors which is the music that they played at the cotton fields. A lot of that music had to do with everyday things."

Shuggie Otis: The Prince on throne

Born in Los Angeles, California, Shuggie Otis is the son of rhythm and blues pioneer, musician, bandleader, and impresario Johnny Otis and wife Phyllis. Otis, primarily known as a guitarist, also sings and plays a multitude of other instruments. While growing up with and being heavily influenced by many blues, jazz and R&B musicians in his father Johnny's immediate circle, Otis began to gravitate towards the popular music of his generation such as Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and Arthur Lee.

In 1969, Al Kooper asked Otis to be the featured guest on the second installment of the Super Session album series that had previously included Stephen Stills and Mike Bloomfield. Otis then released his first solo album later that year entitled Here Comes Shuggie Otis on Epic Records. This further established his reputation and catapulted him to the attention of B. B. King, who was quoted in a 1970 issue of Guitar Player magazine saying Otis was "his favorite new guitarist". Some of the artists Otis performed and recorded with during that time include Frank Zappa, Etta James, Eddie Vinson, Richard Berry, Louis Jordan, and Big Mama Thornton, among many others.

The album Otis received the most notoriety for was his second Epic Records release in 1971, Freedom Flight, which featured his hit "Strawberry Letter 23". In 1974, Otis released Inspiration Information, his third and final album. The album had taken almost three years to finish. After the album's release, Otis was approached by Billy Preston on behalf of The Rolling Stones, asking him to join the band for their upcoming world tour. He declined the offer, along with the chance to work with Quincy Jones in helping produce Otis's next album. After a series of similar refusals, Otis gained the reputation of "taking his time", and his recording contract with Epic Records was nullified. Otis's only credited works throughout the mid-1970s were done as a session musician for his father's recording projects.

Otis is featured in every one of his father's books, as well as Alligator Records Presents West Coast Blues. Sony Music was released a double CD INSPIRATION INFORMATION / WINGS OF LOVE on April 2013. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

Hello from Greece, Shuggie ! Te Kanes? (How are you?) Your father, was a good friend of mine...and now I'm happy to talk with you.

Shuggie: You are one of the people that I didn’t get to do the interview with, I really wanted to! So I’m glad I’m doing it now! I’m really sorry we are doing this so late, because I wanted to do that a long time ago!  Unfortunately, I got really hectic and crazy and I had to go to a tour. I’m heading back by tomorrow to go to Europe, and then head out again to do a TV thing on Jimmy Fallon’s show! Then we are going to hit Toronto, come back to the States, and do a United States tour. After that we are off for two months, main-zone, and back again on July. So, hopefully that’s when I‘m coming to Greece. I would love to see Greece! It’s in my blood, you see.

Exactly! Giannis Alexandros Veliotes…

Shuuggie: Yes, that’s my name…my real name! Let’s begin!

First of all, let’s talk about your new album. What are the differences, and what the similarities from the old ones?

Shuggie: I don’t think there is much difference! Except, maybe, of the fact that I’m going to have a live-field to it, and that would include other people, outside of my own band! This includes me and also my brother, on the drums. My main role is on the guitar. There is also, a bassist, a keyboard player, who also sings, two saxophones and one trumpet. I love it, it’s great and it’s not going to be much different, I think. It is, still, going to be “me”! I think it will appeal more to the masses… with any luck. But, anyway, the idea that I have, the way I do things… I don’t aim at a crowd! So, I want to appeal to this crowd, which likes this kind of music. Maybe, that is the reason why I never made it real big, you know. I have the knowledge to do that, to put out a hot record, because what’s hotter will sell. But, my heart was never in that! The covers, I ever got to do in that was "Strawberry Letter 23". Before I write that song I actually wanted to write a pop song. But it didn’t seem to me that it would have somebody else to cover for it one day or that it was going to hit to there. I had no idea that this was going to happen, but it was for real, it became a Pop Hit.

"I like in the blues the fact that it is a plausible music that way also to certain pop music, that's not necessarily popular but it means something to the soul. I wanna have that kind of feel too." Photo © by Arnie Goodman - Williamsburgh Music Hall, April 2013

Honestly, what do you miss most from your prime days when you first began, from the 60’s?

Shuggie: Well, there was an easy-going life that you don’t see any more. At the age of 15, let’s say, the atmosphere wasn’t that heavy. But at my 20 years this started to change, between the 70’s and the 80’s, I think. The technology started taking over the world and the computer was the next superstar. Maybe, that was good for us musicians, though, because internet offered us quick publicity. So that was, actually how I was able to get together a band and get a tour, last November, in Europe, for two weeks and then back again. I just want to continue to work on the road and to record much more often. What I mean is that I want to record and put off things more often, having something new every two months, let’s say. I don’t want to give the name of the record company because I haven’t done the papers; we haven’t sign anything, yet. But, we are talking about doing some live-videos to prepare a movie, like a biography on me. When they came up with this idea I was a little scared, but I know that people write about me in books; so, I wanted to show the real story about me. I wouldn’t need to act or anything, so I thought “Why not?”.  I don’t like to act, because I don’t want to be an actor, but I do like the fact that I can come up with a movie idea, which I haven’t done since 1999. I have a couple of finished stories, actually. This is something very important to me, also! I want to get more to writing this stories; long stories, short stories, videos or short films, even a movie. This is like a hobby to me, it not business.

Shuggie Otis gives in music new directions between Blues, Soul, Rock and beyond. What does the Blues mean to you?

Shuggie: Blues means to me first of all my black ancestors which is the music that they played at the cotton fields. A lot of that music had to do with everyday things. Singing after hard work was like a celebration to us; a celebration of life. From the lowest lines to the highest heights. Blues is a whole range of things, as B.B. King said. I like in the blues the fact that it is a plausible music that way also to certain pop music, that's not necessarily popular but it means something to the soul. I wanna have that kind of feel too. I think that this new album is gonna have that kind of a feel to it or at least that's what I hear, like a universal fair.

"My father, he was the biggest influence I've ever had. He told me about the business and how it worked. I learned all the negative things about the business after I was in my teen."

What is the line which connects the music and artistic legacy of Johnny Otis with Shuggie Otis?

Shuggie: That line is so strong. First of all it's genetic. As a kid I wanted to play the drums because my father played them. I used to look at his gigantic scrapbook which was from his whole career. I also used to see him and his band which must have had a great effect on me, naturally. I used to think the guitar as a second instrument. I wanted to play the drums and for years I thought that that I was gonna do. But later, the guitar craze came out, the Beatles came out. I was looking up to them and generally everyone with a guitar, in any kind of music.   All of a sudden I was starting listening to music in a much more serious way. That's when I thought that the Beatles just did it, so I was going to get a guitar. I got one and then I started listening to everything, anybody with a guitar that came out on TV. I didn't care what kind of music they were playing. I was just watching because I fell in love the guitar. The guitar is the instrument that I still love the most. It's just a fascinating, beautiful instrument that I'm attached to it. I also love the piano, the bass and the drums but the guitar is the one. As for my father, he was the biggest influence I've ever had. He told me about the business and how it worked. I learned all the negative things about the business after I was in my teen. In twenties I started to learn about that stuff. I understood big business. It was not a big secret nor a mystery to me. Music business was like a home to me because I knew exactly what it was like. One thing that I will never know is the reason why people were afraid of me; like I was some kind of a disease. I entered the business as kid, and as a kid there are people who want to exploit you. That happens because you're young and there's a chance that you're gonna be selling more records, which represent money. Nowadays, people are hungry for real music not just drama scenes. There is nothing wrong with drama scenes but it's time to put more of a human element into the music itself, instead of just a silly kind of idea. The music might make you dance but I like to hear some method along with it. If music is gonna make you dance, do it because it's celebrating life. I'm starting to find people that do affect the same way that I do. For instance my whole band is included by people who are still young at heart but at the same time very mature. They, also, all read music which is a plus for me because I like to write music. My new album just released and we're be on a TV show. It's a very exciting time right now as you can see.

You said that you came to know great musicians. Which meetings have been the biggest experiences for you?

Shuggie: The biggest experience , for me, would be with three decent people. In no particular order it'd be meeting Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and Ray Charles. I met Sly Stone last December and we had a concert. We both played one segment in all but it was a huge roster. It was an event where they were giving us awards for our affords. We just played a few songs but I was able to meet Sly Stone. As for Ray Charles, I'm not just glad that I met him but I was also able to actually play with him. We were going to play together but the thing with Ray Charles was, that he didn't like loud music. So, I was reminded by a friend that day, who had previously worked for Ray, not to turn my guitar too loud. As a result I turned my guitar down. When me and Ray Charles started playing, at some point he looked back at me and said: 'Hey guitar player turn your guitar up a little bit'. I think that's the biggest compliment I’ll ever receive in music. But, I must also include B.B. King and T-Bone Walker, because these are five respectively true artists that I like. I feel like I know these people though I met Sly Stone recently; or with Jimmy Hendrix, with whom I didn't exchange a word. Jimi Hendrix didn't have to speak to me because his eyes spoke. It is still incredible to have met all these R’n’B people, even some jazz people. I even got to play with Jimmy Smith and Brother Jack McDuff. It was incredible. Generally, it was amazing to just play with all these different people. My dad taught me how to work with the business and that's the reason I'm not afraid of the business. When I'm in a business meeting I feel like, my father is there, beside me. I feel him coming through me a lot, even back when he was alive. He taught me a lot. People shouldn't blame anything on their parents because they tried the best they could; until a certain point where you are on your own, in order to become a man or a woman. My parents let me stay at home up until the age I was 23 and they were very lenient with me. As a kid I grew up with a lot of adults surrounding me. As a result I was fonder of adults than kids of my age. I became shy amongst my peers. Later, I got rid of that part of my personality because it kept me from opening up, not only around people but also in music. When I thought that I was getting compassionate in my twenties, you just hope to stay that way because life will present you with things all of a sudden. First was my sister who just passed away 8 days ago from cancer. She went through all these treatments and made me realize that if it's gonna make more depressed, because I suffered from depression, I wouldn't go through all these treatments. Apart from that, I love being on the road. When I'm not on the road I'll be at the studio. Now that I have some financial backing I'm able to do what I always wanted to do. Being on the studio more often means that I can do jobs on the level that I want to do them, with the musicians of the caliber that I have finally found. It may took years to find my band, these great musicians, but I'm not complaining because I believe that people should be grateful to be given a time to express yourself on a certain level. I'm doing a lot of old things because I have to test the album. I'll probably do some of these songs anyway because I still love them. So, it's not like I'm doing something that I don't wanna do. On the other hand, you have to sell your album and Johnny Otis taught me how to deal with the business and mostly how to deal with the better of you. In actuality, my father never dealt with the very best of him. If something was too much for him he would eventually walk out from it. People thought of Johnny Otis as a complex man but he only sought privacy for his many hobbies. I learned so much from him, he was such a great business man. He didn't have a key to success; he only wanted to keep it cozy. My father never tried to sell out, he tried different things because he knew what he could do musically. That's why his music style changed over the years. Apart from that, I believe that my father and I share the same passion for music and I miss him a lot. I'm not a superstitious person but even though he's gone I still feel his presence sometimes. I truly believe that some people die but some people don't. These people just have a chance to be saved from this misery. After I lost my beloved wife and soul mate in 2001, I was so sad and I fell into a slump for ten years. If it wasn't for a phone call I'd probably still be in that slump. Sony UK called me last year, on February 2012 (laugh). The reason I'm laughing is because I gave this album three times to Sony (US) before Sony UK called me. I think they called me up because I was getting ready to do a deal with this company, in New York, call Wax Poetic. I was getting ready to do a signing for this album and the word got out. The next thing I know is getting a call from a lady in Sony UK. I felt like my dream was coming true. Just yesterday, I received a box of CDs and I was speechless, I couldn't believe it.

"My hopes for music is to go to a more human and spiritual directions. To be able to touch people in a way that was long forgotten." Photo © by Arnie Goodman - Williamsburgh Music Hall, April 2013

I was thinking about your meeting with Frank Zappa, who was Arab-Greek-Italian. Which memory of Frank Zappa makes you smile?

Shuggie: He was so nice to me; he gave me an encouragement the whole time. I was very quiet back then, when I used to visit his house with my father. He would let me come over and play his guitars and stuff. The thing that makes me smile is the fact that he was a big influence on me. I remember his music sheets, which were all over the place, being so well written and neat. He had a great hand, he never wrote sloppy. These things impressed me a lot because I wanted to write music. One day he gave me an album of Stravinsky because he knew I liked him and also that I wanted to write music. Secondly, one very nice thing about him was after a recording session. He came up to me, looked at my hand and said that I was a great bass player. All these things make me smile. Another time, we were listening to his music, it was the first time I met him, and in one point it was so funny and I started laughing as a little kid. It sounded like a cartoon and it was making me laugh. He knew exactly what he was writing and it was supposed to make you laugh. Frank Zappa was never a big comedian, he was just a very easy-going guy to be around and he had a good sense of humor.

Which is the best moment of your career and which is the worst?

Shuggie: The best moment seems to be the time when I got signed with Columbia. I was on top of the world back then when I was 15. That was the best moment when we were driving up to Hollywood in order to sign with Epic Records, that's probably one of the highlights. I think being on stage with Jimi Hendrix, at Monterey Pop Festival, was just a highlight. We played for three hours that day, in front of a lot of famous people. Right now I'm feeling like I'm having the highest point of my career because it can only get better so I'm in the highest of highs. This is my comeback and I know it might be my last chance, so I have to put my all into it right now. At the same time, I have to do it on my own pace. But I'm on a schedule and sometimes it gets a little difficult. Thinking what would be my lowest point, I guess it's the time that I had to break up from my wife and live with my parents. I think something like that happened three times in my life. I would visit her every two months because we have a child together. He's 34 now and a great guitar player. So, my lowest point was when I was apart from her for a whole year. The years I spend with my wife were the happiest of my life. She saved my life when I was in such a depressed state. It's a fact that it didn't set well with me that I was out of the music industry. I was also having emotional problems from a previous relationship, with whom I also had a child with. Another lowest point was when I sent a tape to this major record company. I thought I had a chance because they asked my father to bring the tape to them, but afterwards there was no response. I knew that tape was good because that staff are on this, new album. It's funny because I had the best years of my life the times that I was rejected. It was just beautiful; I can't explain it because I was able to see the other side of life, instead of being a famous person. Being faced in the music business at such an early age had an effect on me, which I realize now. We're having a lot of fun on the road. We just came from Australia, from Byron Bay festival; and from Japan, where everybody was great.

"Al (Kooper) was such a nice guy, I thought of him as my big brother. He was very respectful, down to earth, very cool and he treated everyone the same way. I want to thank Al for doing an album with me."

In your sixty you are traveling all over the world but as a 15 year old kid you go to the studio with Al Kooper. Which are the best memories from that week?

Shuggie: We were walking to Greenwich Village, with him and his wife, and some girl said something to Al so his wife said something really rude back. I didn't even hear what the girl said and I don't remember what his wife said to her but she was really loud. It was a very funny moment. Al was such a nice guy, I thought of him as my big brother. He was very respectful, down to earth, very cool and he treated everyone the same way. I want to thank Al for doing an album with me. We first met at a records convention in LA. He approached me and asked me if I wanted to do an album with him in New York. I accepted, of course, and I stopped in the middle of my album to do that. It lasted two days; it was great and had a lot of fun. I, also remember playing with him in person. We did a gig together and it was fine until the second set when I got drunk and I could not continue. It was kind of embarrassing but we're OK.

What are your hopes and your fears about the future of music?         

Shuggie: My hopes for music is to go to a more human and spiritual directions. To be able to touch people in a way that was long forgotten. I'd like to see in the Top 40 real musician with the chance to make the same amount of money. I hear there's a sickness going on in the world with a lot of people who are hungry for a certain type of music. I'm one of these people because I'm pretty much universal. I love all types of music from all different countries and all different styles. I am lucky to able to put all that into my own style of music. Inspiration was re-released in 2001 and the resonance that it had to younger kids actually surprised me. My audience apparently varies from teenage kids up into the 90's. In that respect I'm one of the luckiest people in the world, so I can't complain.

"To my generation, I would say, thank you lucky stars (laugh)! That's my quote. A friend of mine was telling me the percentage of my generation that lasted and I wasn't aware of." Photo © by Arnie Goodman - Williamsburgh Music Hall, April 2013

When we talk about blues and rock we usually refer moments of the past, such as Mike Bloomfield, Hendrix, Shuggie Otis etc. Do you believe in the existence of real blues-rock nowadays?

Shuggie: I certainly do but i believe it needs some boost somewhere. I can't label what this next album is gonna sound like; I only know that it contains elements of all the music styles that I like. I'm very excited about this new album and it feels like a sort of brand new music. My manager has a lot of faith in me and in this new album. I just have my fingers crossed about my new album even though I have faith in my capability of working. I feel thankful that I don't have, at my age, any health problems that are pulling me back.

What did your father tell you about Greek culture, food and music?

Shuggie: He told me about the music, I also own a bouzouki. He told me a little bit about Greek food; this soup that it's called “avgolemono” is one of my favorite foods. My father taught me a lot about Greek culture but I wish I could speak Greek. I'd be nice to know another language. With the things that we're working right now, we want the audience to reach such a high level of excitement. It's almost like a dream because it seems like we're achieving it. My grandmother would feel my Greek heritage more than my father and that is where I took my Greek culture from. My father was proud being Greek but not proud of being white and it took him a lot of time to accept the fact that he was white. He just preferred being with black guys more. As for my grandfather, my father's father, he was such a nice man. Even though he died at the age of 65, when I was probably three or four, he was such a quiet man but I remember him very well. When my grandfather died, I didn't know what it meant to be sad but when I understood that he wasn't coming back, that time I started being more spiritual. Even though I wasn't given any religious nor any spiritual upbringing

"He told me about the music, I also own a bouzouki. He told me a little bit about Greek food; this soup that it's called “avgolemono” is one of my favorite foods. My father taught me a lot about Greek culture but I wish I could speak Greek."

Are there any memories from Etta James, Bobby 'Blue' Bland and Louis Jordanwhich you’d like to share with us? 

Shuggie: I never recorded with Bobby Bland. It was just a rumor that was put in a book. I never played in his band but I did play on stage with him and B.B. King's band once. My band was the opening act for those two and so we jammed a little altogether. There was another rumor in that book but I don't actually remember it now. I did wear bad glasses with my father’s band but I never got anybody in trouble, I got away with it. I might have looked 21 but I was actually 13, because of that no one ever bothered me. It worked for a long time and that's how I first viewed the music scene, the music life. I was viewing the professional music as if I was picking at it .These were some of the most exciting times of my life and those little gigs with my dad. But now I’m having the same fun. Everything is capsuled into one right now; people can see what they ever wanted to see in Shuggie Otis. I'm blessed to be inspired to play music right now and I'm gonna give it my best.

What is the best advice that was ever given to you, and what advice would you give to the new generation?

Shuggie: To my generation, I would say, thank you lucky stars (laugh)! That's my quote. A friend of mine was telling me the percentage of my generation that lasted and I wasn't aware of. We thought that we were really lucky to be alive because we took a lot of chances with drugs and stuff like that. Because of some bad experiences I don't do drugs anymore. As a result, I can play better now, my guitar playing came back and that fascinates me. My flexibility came back and I was so grateful. It seemed as if my new drug was, being sober. I hope I answered your question; I'm just very excited about this trip.

The official Shuggie Otis site

Photo © by Arnie Goodman - Williamsburgh Music Hall, April 2013

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