Shuggie Otis Interview
Once there was a man who, while really no more than a boy, took the world of blues and soul by storm. That was in late 1960s and early 1970s. He made three great albums with some of the hottest musicians around and then disappeared from view.
Shuggie Otis Portrait (Simon Jay Price)
I met him at an art deco hotel, just off the Euston Road and over a glass of water our conversation started. He is in a good mood because the night before at Koko, a venue in London, Shuggie Otis and the band had played a wonderful gig. I am lucky because the first journalist he met with that day got short shift. He is now more settled. He looks very dapper in his dark suit with green waistcoat, cuffs and white ruff. He is carrying a cane and wears gloves.
On stage Shuggie can be brilliant, charming, chaotic, frustrating and forgetful and that also comes across when we talk . I share a love of guitars with him and we get to speak about the instruments he plays on stage.
It was noticeable that in most concerts you use the Red Gibson ES335 but in London you chose to use mostly the white Fender Stratocaster which you play upside down?
Yes people ask me about that all the time why are you playing left handed are you trying to be like Jimi Hendrix? I say this much that Jimi Hendrix is my number one influence. I feel very close to him, like I know him, in fact I do know him. I met him once but I don’t know him from that, I know him another way.
The reason I like to play like that is the feel of it is different, I like the look of it, the treble pickup goes another way so that it is not a tinny sound. The tension on the high strings is less, so I break less strings but then it is not so easy to play the high notes, I like a challenge…I have lots of guitars.
I like the Stratocaster but I also like the 335 (Gibson guitar) and I had a Les Paul (Gibson guitar) there last night too. I didn’t play it so much because I had a few amp problems.
I thought I had set up my AB box correctly but I didn’t know what I was doing…I thought I did but it did not work. I had two other pedals and it worked for minute and then stopped so I was eliminating the problem but it was just ridiculous. We now have to buy a new pedal board for the next bit of the tour.
I have a tendency to play really loud and in my last band I had three horn players so my sound was loud to compensate for them and it became a little overpowering for me and for the audience. I stripped back the group and kept a great saxophone player, Albert Wing. He used to play electric sax and I want him to incorporate that element into the band.
I am getting used to the new technology, I sometimes feel that I am living in the past but I have no real problem with it. I have a little computer studio, I know how to run all that stuff. I taught myself how to run pro tools I had no help from anyone.
Where do you have your studio?
My studio was in my house when I had a house, when I was on tour my house got sold, that was a relief and I moved into an apartment..I don’t think I will ever buy a house again, I don’t need a house.
My whole concept of life and extravagance has changed. I don’t want to have an extravagant life at all.
When I was young I wanted a house in the country with a 24 track studio and those things kinda came true due to my father. The studio was built in the back yard of our house in Los Angles and Columbia record label provided the finances, instead of giving me a cash deal my father wanted a studio..I did not..but when I heard about it I wasn’t sad, it was a great thing to have.
Looking back, and I thought this a long time ago, I prefer not to have a studio in a home, especially when you cannot have an insulated room. I can record little things at home with the headphones but you have to be quiet and that is one thing I don’t like to do.
They always call and tell me to shut up, they put notes on my door and knock on my door. All very frustrating and it got worse and worse and I had just got over an illness, stomach issue and money issues as well and the worst depression I ever had in my life.
How is your health now?
On my last tour I was on top of the world, when I came home I was on a high, then I had an accident, I’ll just share it with you. I fell and knocked this tooth out (shows me the replacement tooth). Thats why a speak with this slur and I have to speak up and annunciate real loud to get the words out. That wasn’t so bad, I mean it wasn’t good but that is not what me depressed. The pain went on for a few weeks. I fell on my whole body, on the pavement of the pier.
(Laughs) I know it’s not funny, I can laugh about it now…
How long ago was that ?
That was around October last year. I had just moved into my new apartment. I was good for a few weeks enjoying the place. It seemed like after I fell, it was the pain that mostly was bothering me and then I got sick with stomach flu and depression as well and it was awful. I could not wait for this new tour to start.
I turned into a mannequin I was so depressed, I was questioning what is going to happen with my life. I said to myself; you are not a loser, you are not a quitter, what is going on?
I am not a religious person but i am a spiritual person, (I don’t want to talk about religion) so that’s what gets me by.
Do you have a great self belief an internal energy?
No. I just have faith
No. In the Master. In the Master of the Universe…(Shuggie laughs) no that is a joke. I have faith that there is something, I don’t know what it is but it is getting me out of trouble and when I get into trouble I usually get out of it. This time though I didn’t think I was going to get out of it, I mean I am getting older and I was pondering on that.
All my life I was thinking I was going to live for ever. I had a good mindset and I am very optimistic but then I reached a certain age. I am 62 years old and have never lied about my age. (Some people I was with back when I was twenty years old would lie about their age just to get the girls). I am not some crazy person who is going to do myself in, I am not that way, I want to continue to live as long as I can, but you have to face facts that your body changes and your mind changes as well.
I am able play every night with a good band and with guys that I like. Finally I have a band that I want to keep together.
How do you all get on together?
I stay out of it because my whole personality (in the past) would be to react if someone gave me a hard time and I would argue and bicker. I would get violent and throw things and break guitars.
I remember throwing a guitar at the audience one time, I was playing with my father and he and one of the other guys was teasing me, I said “forget it.” That’s my personality and I would not do that now, I have changed so much and I am still changing. I am trying to improve everyday.
Tell me a bit more about your new music, you recorded one new song Ice Cream Party in the last few years?
I did that for a favour, that’s not my band it was a track that was already done and they wanted me to put a guitar part on it. We wrote some lyrics, silly lyrics, it is a silly song, it really is a dumb song. It is not a good representation of me. I don’t play it live because it is not mine. I don’t feel it.
It was something that the record company wanted to do (Cleopatra Records recorded a live album with Shuggie in 2015), I said OK, it was no big deal.
But my new album that I am working on is way different. What I do like about that Ice Cream Party song is the freedom of the guitar and I am starting to do more of that kind of playing, I would say based more on Jimi Hendrix. I am starting to incorporate psychedelic, more, into the group and enjoying it.
I have some new ideas. I don’t want to sound like I am bragging but I am very, very excited about getting it completed. And that’s what I’ll do when I get home.
Shuggie Otis has been promising an album for quite some time now, since 2012 at least. It would certainly be one of the longest stretches from last album to newest material, already over 40 years and counting.
I found him wonderful to talk to but I got the feeling that there are a lot of obstacles that will get in the way of a fourth studio album being made.
Shuggie Otis was in conversation with Simon Jay Price. If you want to know more about Shuggie Otis and his history then read this great feature by Nicola Greenbrook. Click on the link Shuggie Otis Feature