Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Shuggie Otis Double Feature: "Strawberry Letter 23" and "Freedom Flight" (1971)



Shuggie Otis is unquestionably one of the most wildly talented musicians in West Coast funk and jazz history. The son of Johnny Otis, the early R&B bandleader and, as he seems to be called by every article on the subject, "impresario," young Shuggie was cutting heads on the twelve-bar blues from the time he was an adolescent, performing professionally by the time he was 12 not only on his principle instrument (the guitar) but behind the drums, at the keys, and on bass as well. At 16 he played bass on Frank Zappa's Hot Rats (FZ was a big Johnny Otis fan and actually grew his famed goatee as an homage), and by 18 he'd cut his first solo record, Freedom Flight, laying down much of the instrumentation himself with the odd assist from a coterie of top-rank L.A. studio cats.

"Strawberry Letter 23" would later become a massive hit in a watered-down, tarted-up cover by the Brothers Johnson, but Shuggie's original is where you want to find yourself: at the moment I can't think of a record which more perfectly and seamlessly integrates the rock'n'roll and R&B milieus of its day, which so acutely marries a baroque psych production to a rolling funk groove and a nearly proggy coda of layered guitar overdubs.




Freedom Flight's title track, on the other hand, gives us a glimpse of Shuggie in full modal-improv mode, backed by musicians including Wilton Felder (bass), Aynsley Dunbar (drums, then with Frank Zappa's band), and the brilliant George Duke (Rhodes piano). The blues-derived lyricism in his playing, over the sort of groove one might find on a contemporary Pharoah Sanders or Lonnie Liston Smith record, is astonishing; there was really nobody playing guitar this way, with this much sting combined with this much lilt, in 1971, and I'm pressed to name another effort of this sort even today. (Unfortunately, the track has to be faded at 10:00 of its 12:48 length due to YouTube restrictions.)

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