Shuggie Otis would prefer it if people would stop asking him what he’s been doing for the past 40 years.
It’s a question the veteran rock-and-soul artist has gotten from fans and journalists ever since he’s been on the road doing shows (like the one he’ll be doing at Lincoln Theatre this Saturday). Has Otis gotten tired of having to explain his quiet, private years as a husband and father?
“Yes, I have,” says Otis, 61, laughing. “But I’ll tell you anyway. I was just living a normal life. Trying to get a record deal was a primary focus, as far as music was concerned. There were a few times when I put a band together, but I couldn’t get a record deal to save my life.”
Back in the day, the California born-and-based Otis (real name: Joseph Anthony Veliotes Jr.) was a star on the rise. The son of R&B bandleader/icon Johnny Otis, the younger Otis was considered a child prodigy. He started playing guitar at the age of 2 and played professionally with his old man’s band at 12. Still in his teens, he recorded and performed with such artists as Frank Zappa, Etta James and Al Kooper.
Eventually, Otis began making music as a solo artist. In 1970, Otis released his debut album, “Here Comes Shuggie Otis.” This was followed by “Freedom Flight” in 1971 and “Inspiration Information” in 1974. Unfortunately, these albums, which has Otis merging rock, folk, blues and soul in a psychedelic fashion, didn’t propel him to rock-star status. (However, you could say Otis led the way for fellow rock/soul fusion stars Prince, Lenny Kravitz and D’Angelo.)
After the dismal release of “Inspiration,” which he produced himself (his first two albums were produced by his old man) and took three years to finish, Otis was dropped from his label, soon realizing he was seen more as a liability than an asset in the industry. “It was like I wasn’t wanted – let’s put it that way – in the music business,” he says.
Actually, he was wanted a couple of times.
Quincy Jones, who would later produce a hit version of Otis’ “Strawberry Letter 23” for the Brothers Johnson, offered to produce Otis’ next album, but he passed. He also turned down a chance to replace Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones, a position that would later be filled by Ron Wood. Quite simply, Otis still wanted to be his own artist.
Alas, Otis spent four decades out of the spotlight as a working musician. However, in the past decade, people started discovering and appreciating his earlier work – thanks mainly to a Talking Head. In 2001, David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label re-released “Inspiration,” turning the once-lost album into a major find.
“It was a big surprise as far as the reaction,” he says. “But I have a funny story: A few years after the album was released in 1974, I was talking to my wife one day and I said, ‘You know, I think one day this ‘Inspiration Information’ album will be re-released, and I’m gonna be in my 40s.’ And that’s exactly what happened; I was 48, I think, when it came out.” (“Inspiration” was re-released again a couple of years ago, along with a new album called “Wings of Love,” which includes live and studio recordings Otis did between 1975 to 2000.)
Now that Otis has a fan base, filled with young folk and old heads who have been down with his music since day one, he’s been in the mood to not only perform live, but also record more. He says he’s been laying down tracks for a forthcoming album.
No longer underappreciated, Shuggie Otis wants everyone to know it’s not where’s he been, but where he’s going next.
Who: Shuggie Otis, with Greg Humphreys Electric Trio
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Lincoln Theatre, 126 E. Cabarrus St.
Info: 919-821-4111 or lincolntheatre.com