“Man, I’ve got this great new band and I’m so excited to be back playing live,” says Otis from his L.A. home. “We’ve done three gigs so far, and people seem to love it.”
Otis, born Johnny Alexander Veliotes, Jr. November 30, 1953, is the son of legendary Los Angeles artist, promoter, television host and recording executive Johnny Otis. Shuggie took up guitar at 11 after giving up on drums, and by 12 he was playing professionally in his dad’s band.
“I was an odd kid,” Otis recalls. “I actually got along better and was more comfortable with adults than I was kids my own age. I was something of an introvert, just very shy. And we did it all incognito, like I would wear a fake moustache and I always had on these dark glasses and I always passed for 21 somehow. All those years in the clubs doing shows with dad I never got in any hassle about my age.”
Otis also notes that his dad “took care of business.”
“I joined the union, [and] paid my dues just like any musician working in L.A. did at that time,” Otis laughs. “My dad was a good businessman, always had all these ideas and irons in the fire, and he looked out for me. But he also expected me to do my job and do it the right way.”
After the working apprenticeship in his father’s band, at 15 Otis was invited by Bob Dylan keyboardist Al Kooper to be the featured artist on the second of Kooper’s Super Session (this particular entry was billed as Kooper Session) series of albums. After B.B. King announced to the world that Shuggie Otis was his favorite young guitarist, record deals began to come his way and he signed a three album deal with Epic. He released his first solo album, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, in 1969. He was only 16 and people were beginning to compare him to Jimi Hendrix.
“That was flattering to a 16 year-old kid, but I never wanted to be the next Jimi Hendrix, you know,” Otis recalls. “I’m not sure I consciously realized it at the time, but I was going in some other direction musically. And I never wanted to be just a guitar player, it’s always been bigger than that to me. Being a great guitar player is not the thing, the music is the thing.”
Lately Otis is bothered by some of the characterizations of him in the press.
“I really was a very shy kid,” he explains, “but I hate it that some people in the press or at the record labels think of me as a recluse, that they've labeled me like that. Sure, I like my alone time, but I’m not hiding in a cave somewhere and don’t want to see or talk to anybody. That reclusive word really bothers me.”
He also doesn’t care for interviewers who try to lead him to some preconceived spot or who want to delve into the technical aspects of his work.
“Once you have some success in the music business, like you have a hit, suddenly everything you do is supposed to be good," he says. "Once you have a hit they begin to see you as someone who can’t do wrong, and that’s not realistic. I’m serious about music, I mean it’s what I do, it’s my life, but I don’t want it to be so serious I can’t crack a smile. I don’t really like to talk about the technicalities of it. I want my music to come from the heart instead of the brain, I just want to hum something that pleases me or have something pop up in a jam and let it come. I don’t like it to be technical, I like music to be light-hearted, you know, unless it’s romantic, I can get a little heavy about that, do some deep thinking. But I don’t ever want to come at my music from some technical view point. It’s about how I feel and how the music makes you feel, that’s the bottom line for me.
“Like I’ve never been a big writer of words,” Otis almost shrugs, “but I like to experiment. So creatively I like to put something together that pleases me, then I’m OK. After I’m pleased with it, then I’ll see if other people like it. But I don’t want to be the kind of writer or composer who thinks, ‘Well, I need to put this in because this is popular and selling now.’ I’ve never approached my work that way.”
That attitude was part of the problem with his Epic deal.
“I got the reputation for working slow because it took a couple of years to put out the third album, Inspiration Information," he says. "Actually, there was a lot going on during that period. We were building a studio in my dad’s backyard, and that took up time and slowed the recording process down. I was composing the songs and working with dad and some other people on some of the arrangements, plus I was playing almost every instrument, so that in itself took some time and thought. But the label seemed disappointed that it took two years to get that record finished and they pigeon-holed me as a slow worker. I'd barely turned 21 and they already had this slow, reclusive image of me in their minds. Oh, well.”
Otis finds himself in a good place these days.
“I went through a dormant period as far as music goes,” notes Otis, “and now suddenly people are interested in what I’m doing and there’s some demand from people who want to hear me. It’s a very exciting and gratifying period in my life.”
So why would a 61-year old still want the grind of touring?
“You can make it be a grind if you want to,” he laughs, “but that’s not me. I love to travel, and in my early career a lot of times conditions just weren’t right for me to do a lot of touring on my own. I’ve played for the door, taken my chances, but I didn’t always necessarily have the chance to play the way I wanted to. But now Universal Attractions has taken an interest in me and they’ve put together a really nice month-long tour of the States with good venues, good stages, and I’m honestly just very happy and excited. I really love it. If this goes well, we’ll probably do a European tour later this year."
Shuggie Otis performs with special guests Trudy Lynn and DJ Flash Gordon Parks this Friday, July 10, at the Continental Club, 3700 Main. Doors open at 9 p.m.