Shadows cast long palls. We are often obscured by a singular event, a specific place and time, that comes to define us. Dwarfed by expectation and history, the weight of that moment becomes so burdensome that action must be taken. Some rise to the occasion, step outside of the dark umbra, and own their mark; others shrink further into the void, never to be heard from again.
The latter seemed the history of Johnny Otis Jr. Known as Shuggie to anyone frequenting a blues hall, the guitar virtuoso rode side-by-side with his equally prestigious father. Shuggie defined musical expressionism at a young age, the hero in a string of underage fairy tales of sneaking into clubs so he could accompany his father’s band. As his reputation grew, so did his repertoire. As a member of Snatch And The Poontangs, Shuggie cemented his story by delving into the sexual revolution from its southern roadhouse traditions, bluesmen with no regard for morality plays, speaking to the truth of sex, love, and despair.
Shortly after the detour into “adult blues,” Shuggie holed up in a studio to produce his first full-length, Here Comes Shuggie Otis. Lending much to the boogie blues and soul he played with his father’s ensembles, the album is a blues tour de force lost in the shadow of Clapton solos and Muddy Waters revivalism at the end of the swinging 60s. Follow-up Freedom Flight was far more forward, integrating funk and jazz into Shuggie’s bluesman wails. Its pop tendencies, including the iconic “Strawberry Letter 23,” proved a strong bridge between his past and his future. It would be nearly three years before Inspiration Information came and went, and though its title track charted, the momentum and creativity generated by Shuggie’s talents — too slow for the mechanism of the music business — began to fade. He became a myth, spoken of quietly. He refused an invite from The Rolling Stones, ignored offerings from Quincy Jones, and shrunk back into the shadow of his father’s projects.
As a resurrection project, Shuggie’s work began resurfacing at the turn of the century. Inspiration Information unleashed a new psychedelic soul on a landscape that was just reawakening to the spirit of 69 after a decade of grunge and bubblegum. “Strawberry Letter 23” became the property of Shuggie and not of the Brothers Johnson. The music was seemingly timeless, unattached to the circumstances from which it was spawned.
Wings of Love, under the cover of Shuggie’s own shadow for nearly 30 years, suffers from lost time. Unlike the greatest movements of his previous albums, Wings of Love’s diversity is its greatest fault, as 14 tracks visit musical fads long forgotten and ill conceived. The 25 years of back catalog spanned by this collection hits the disparate Shuggie influences, but its curation neglects to account for the same nuances and spirit of his work.
The faults are immediate. “Tryin’ to Get Close to You” is ripped from the mid-70s R&B playbook, a mélange of human soul and programmed beats that speaks more to a fad than an emerging trend. The title track is 80s FM pop, the production airy and the sentiment just as empty. “Give Me a Chance” finds Shuggie further appropriating the 80s formula into his work, toss-offs akin to the work of Peebles or The Jets rather than the experimental pop gems Shuggie crafted the previous decade. Where Shuggie once helped forward movements and break barriers, much of Wings of Love finds him directionless, clinging to established norms in an effort to rediscover his creative spark.
But keep listening to Wings of Love and those glimpses of inspiration make themselves known in powerful bursts. “Fireball of Love” harkens back to Here Comes Shuggie Otis, unafraid of unfiltered blues riffs amid a sea of big-band melody and infectious beats. “Black Belt Sheriff” is a stripped-down, emotional tell-all with the same snap and electricity of Hendrix and Havens. “Fawn” and “Destination You” shimmer with the psychedelic funk of Inspiration Information, loud exclamations of uniqueness that were jammed in the back of the closet for far too long.
Which is where Wings of Love proves most disappointing. Whatever reasons Shuggie Otis had for hiding from the public eye for so long, his music has suffered for it. What made Shuggie a compelling character in the midst of his 2000 revival was the romanticism of unconformity. Wings of Love is riddled with moments of doubt, and though those often produce thoughtful songs, for Shuggie, it was a time of self-doubt and rediscovery via flimsy capriciousness. His earlier albums had a disregard for what was fashionable, where much of Wings of Love is consumed by it. It’s wonderful to have Shuggie emerge from his own shadow, reinvigorated by his newfound cult fame, but Wings of Love is still trapped in its cast.