Time was, they reserved the vision thing for the scant few artists who truly envisioned panoramic music - Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, John Coltrane. Today they hand out the "visionary" tags as freely as they dispense the gold records, like party favors out of a cardboard box.
Shuggie Otis truly had the vision thing. Compared at the wispy age of 15 with Hendrix and the great Kings of blues guitar (B.B., Albert, Freddie), the young phenom went on to make two expansive, genre-defying, deeply curious albums, 1971s "Freedom Flight" and 1974s "Inspiration Information." The records, essentially crafted as a one- man band, floored Sly Stone, gave the Brothers Johnson their most enduring hit ("Strawberry Letter 23") and predated the stylistic synthesist Prince by half a decade.
Otis, son of the rhythm and blues bandleader Johnny Otis, was a guitar prodigy, but he didnt stop there. An exceptional drummer and vibraphone player, he immersed himself in drum-machine technology in its earliest incarnation. He played piano and organ, and he arranged for horns and strings; friends say he was at least as good a bass player as he was a guitarist.
Johnny Otis says that his son was as natural a musician as they come. When the senior Otis urged his teenage guitarist to pursue his interest in film scoring by signing up for composing lessons, they didnt last long. After a few days, he remembers, the tutor came to the father and begged off: "He already knows this shit!"
After showcasing with his fathers band, Shuggie cut sessions with Frank Zappa and Al Kooper, then set out on his own. "Freedom Flight" combined his innate fluency in the blues with a budding interest in exploratory, style-fusing soundscapes.
Nearly three years in the making, the deeply personal "Inspiration Information" was the culmination of Shuggies intense self-imposed apprenticeship, a genuinely visionary song cycle that featured primitive but soulful drum-machine meditations ("Aht uh Mi Hed," "XL-30"), satiny pop orchestration backing shrewd jazz guitar ("Rainy Day") and suitelike funky dance music that glides from a roots-reggae backbeat to swirling Love Unlimited-style strings ("Not Available"). Insatiable as it was, the album foretold several pop music developments to come: soulful auteurism, D.I.Y.-style recording, organic computer music.
Musicians were his biggest fans. "I've always been in love with his stuff from "Inspiration Information," says George Johnson of the Brothers Johnson. "That album was right up there for me with (Slys) "There's a Riot Going On."
But the album proved too futuristic, too stubbornly unique for the rock marketplace of 1974. By the time of its release, Otis had squandered whatever momentum he had earned as a rising star at the turn of the decade. The album met with commercial indifference, and it turned out to be Shuggies swan song.
Now 48, Otis makes the occasional recording session, the odd live gig. But health issues have kept him from sustaining his musical career with any consistency. And he isnt exactly eager to talk about the past. Strangely, no one who was around at the time can recall just what Shuggie was up to in the studio. Johnny Otis, credited as the albums executive producer, says he called sessions for strings and horns at Shuggies request. Thats about all he remembers.
"I executive produced it," he says, "but he was the creator."
Steven Paley was Shuggies A&R man at Epic during the "Inspiration" years. "He was signed to me, but I had very little to do with him," says Paley, who was also Sly Stones A&R man. "I had absolutely nothing to do with the record other than, "Hi, how are you?"
Perhaps its no coincidence that a gaping lack of information now surrounds the record. In the original liner notes to "Inspiration Information," the writer proclaimed that the former adolescent guitar prodigy "is a man and an artist now. He is creating in the seventies, time whose conflicts are being shaped by information and the lack of it."
Few may recall how the masterpiece was realized, but they all remember how boundless Shuggies potential seemed at the time. Larry Cohn, producer of the groundbreaking Robert Johnson boxed set and the man who first signed Otis to Epic Records, equates Shuggies unfulfilled talent with Johnsons.
Cohn offers another lofty comparison, this one reflecting Otis mastery of so many instruments. The jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke, dead at 28, was known as Louis Armstrongs match on the cornet, but he was equally gifted on the piano. "In his [Bixs] piano playing you can hear Bartok, Debussy," Cohn says. "Thats probably the avenue Shuggie wouldve traveled, to my mind."
Among the classical composers of the rock n roll era - the electronic artists, DJs and post-rock musicians - the ones who have been turned on to Shuggie agree. "Inspiration Information is almost like a new style of music that could've developed but never did," marvels Tim Gane of the group Stereolab. "That's the problem. It never developed past this record."
Around the time of "Inspiration"s release, the Rolling Stones offered Mick Taylors newly vacated guitar spot to Shuggie. When Billy Preston called with the proposal, Otis politely declined.
"I had my own group, my own label deal," he said years later. "I just wanted to do what I want to do. I had my own identity." More than that, he knew where to find the inspiration.
-- James Sullivan