"There were some dry times in my life. There were times I even had day jobs. I was still sending my tapes out, ready to go whenever it was time. It wasn't time until now"
To commemorate 40 years since releasing his last album, "Inspiration Information," Shuggie Otis pairs the reissued classic with "Wings of Love," a new collection of unreleased recordings made during the decades he searched for a record deal. Otis spoke with Billboard about that constant search, the basement that made him famous, and the catch-22 with his song "Strawberry Letter 23."
Billboard: You're talking to the press, you're performing, you're recording again. And it only took four decades.
Otis: Oh yeah, it's new but it feels like yesterday. It's nothing new to me. I've been onstage since I was 12, and so I never had stage fright. I love the stage. [...] I played with my dad [the late Johnny Otis], did some tours with him. I never did stop recording in his studio, or writing. There were some lapses where I said, "Forget it." In 1975, when they dropped us from Epic, I went to every label you can think of until 2012. That sounds like somebody lyin', right? [Laughs.] But it's true. Sony UK called me last year. I was getting ready to do a deal with Wax Poetics and I think word got out. [...] I had pitched it four times and it got refused. I had never pitched it to Sony UK. But things are fine now.
Which label did you end up going with after all these years?
Actually, I'm not signed to anyone right now. We'll see what happens, you know? If somebody is interested then I'll have to start making decisions. Right now I'm not signed to a record company or a booking agency. I'm working with Windish Agency, and they're doing a fine job. They're getting me a lot of work. We'll see what happens. Hopefully, soon.
At what point did you realize "Wings of Love" should see the light of day? When did it feel right?
Well, it felt right right after I recorded it. [...] You change as you grow older: your mind changes, your body changes, everything changes. I guess your tastes change, too. And you don't want to go repeat yourself. [...] I won't try to write a song until I hear something in my head or I'm practicing and a song comes out of it.
What was the last song you wrote?
I can't remember, honestly, the last song I wrote. I can only say that they're not recorded yet. But they will be on the next album.
What did you do after Epic dropped you and your father? Did you put down the guitar?
Oh no, I never put the guitar away. No, sir. No, I never put music down. What I did was I just kept sending my tapes out, kept going into record company offices and talking with them. It got to be humorous to me. I just knew every time, even when I had somewhat high hopes and I was optimistic, I always knew, "Don't be surprised: You're probably going to be refused." It got to that point where it didn't surprise me at all anymore. [...] I don't know why people lost interest in me. I just don't get it.
And you were a struggling established artist.
Maybe the time off helped me. [Laughs.] I was born into the music business, in a sense. I wanted to play drums, and the years went by until I finally wanted a guitar, and I started playing a year later with my father. And from then on we actually got a phone call from Frank Zappa, who wanted to interview him for Life magazine. Life magazine was doing a feature story or special issue on the '60s and the hippie generation. [...] They hit it off real good. After the interview we went down to the studio in a basement. And we jammed, just me, Dad and him. [...] Frank Zappa said, "Why don't you do a Johnny Otis blues album?" And the rest is history. We just did it for fun.
How appreciative have the Brothers Johnson been for you having written their biggest hit, "Strawberry Letter 23?"
They are very, very cool. I knew them before they did the song. Louis Johnson got married and played "Strawberry Letter" while he was walking down the aisle with his wife. And they decided to record it. [...] I didn't know it was gonna hit like that. It really kinda kept me alive up to now, for the most part. I mean, there were times when there was like no checks coming in. And if they were they didn't pay for hardly anything. There were some dry times in my life. There were times I even had day jobs. I was still sending my tapes out, ready to go whenever it was time. It wasn't time until now.
Did the checks come more frequently when hip-hop musicians sampled your work?
It turned out to be a very good thing because, money-wise, I was broke. So the more samples, the better. But at first I didn't like it. They were sampling it and putting it on rap records that had a lot of derogatory stuff. I wasn't into that, and I'm still not. It's very silly, a lot of the stuff they talk about. I never did understand the idea why gangster rap loved "Strawberry Letter 23" so much. It's a love song.