Shuggie Otis at The Orange Peel, Asheville NC 9 October 2013 (Part One)

One evening early in September 2013, I was on the phone with a good friend. “Shuggie Otis is playing next month at The Orange Peel,” I announced. “What?! No…” Clearly I was mistaken, he thought. “He’s dead.”

No he’s not, I assured my friend. But that belief is a common, understandable mistake. Son of famed R&B bandleader Johnny Otis, Shuggie burst on the scene with Dad’s help in the late 1960s. When his debut LP, 1969’s Here Comes Shuggie Otis was released, the singer/guitarist was a mere fifteen years old. But one would never know that listening to the fully realized recording. Though he had help from musician friends including Wilton Felder, his first record displayed a firm command of a variety of styles, from soul to blues to r&b to a sort of ambitious, proto-progressive rock. He most definitely didn’t sound like some kid when he played those guitar leads.

While the album’s strongest and most forward-looking track was the opener “Oxford Gray” (a Shuggie original co-written with his father, bassist Felder and drummer Stix Hooper), the whole album showed promise. That promise was fulfilled in fits and starts. Freedom Flight didn’t come out until nearly two years later, but it was another solid collection that included the now-classic “Strawberry Letter #23,” a hit for The Brothers Johnson in 1977 (Shuggie’s original version remains the best). And three more years passed before Inspiration Information came out in 1974. Its title track was a minor hit, and this third album also garnered very positive reviews. But – more or less – that was the last anyone heard from Shuggie onstage or on record.

He didn’t exactly go away, but what he did do is murky. In (rare) interviews he points out that he never really stopped making music, playing guitar. And in fact that’s true: on the 2013 expanded reissue of Inspiration Information, the collection includes four more tracks from that album’s sessions and an entire second disc called Wings of Love. That disc brings together the best of what Otis had recorded between 1975 and 2000. And while overall it’s perhaps not quite as remarkable as his early work, its strongest cuts (including the song “Wings of Love”) hold up very well next to the best of his earlier work of nearly forty years ago.

But whenever Shuggie Otis’ name would be brought up, there would be talk of unspecified “problems,” reasons why he was no longer releasing new material or performing. “Erratic” and “unpredictable” are a few of the words I have heard used to describe him, though whether these opinions were the product of first-hand knowledge or rumor couldn’t be ascertained.

So when I discovered that Otis was mounting a tour and coming to Asheville NC’s Orange Peel, I simply knew I had to go. So Escape From New York film quote references aside (“I heard you was dead!”), I made plans to attend the show.

“Do you know how we get in?” That was the query aimed at us by the dapper, impeccably-dressed man who approached us just outside of the Orange Peel’s front door and box office. As is my standard practice, we had shown up early so we could get a seat for the show. The Orange Peel got its start in the 1960s as a roller skating rink (the wood floor remains to this day) and was a soul/funk club in the 70s. When it reopened in 2000, it held just under 1000 people, and a recent remodel/expansion increased its capacity to about 1400. But for most shows, a small scattering of four-top tables and barstools provided seating for no more than perhaps fifty people; the rest would stand. So for an evening of music (usually including an opening act), I preferred to have those barstools.

Hence our presence ahead of the doors (or even box office) opening for the evening. So at this moment, my sweetheart and I were the only people there. That’s when the stylishly dressed man approached us. In a subtly pinstriped suit with silk Ascot and matching cane (the latter seemingly more for sartorial effect than to provide balance), he walked up to the front door and turned to us, asking about how we might get in.

We recognized Shuggie Otis immediately. My sweetheart started banging on the glass door in hope of getting the attention of someone inside. “I’m playing here tonight,” Otis told us. I laughed and said something to him like, “Yeah, no kidding.” An Orange Peel staffer came to the door and opened it. Otis disappeared inside the venue.


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