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Shuggie Otis: Was it worth the 39-year wait?

Shuggie Otis.

Adam Farber

The music? Never mind the music – we've got a narrative. One of the sweetest stories these days for music lovers is the saga of Sixto Rodriguez, a folk-rock troubadour from the early seventies. His oddball tale was made known with the 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man. A fragile Detroit singer-songwriter who cut a couple of Dylanish albums which sold little, Rodriguez withdrew from the scene and vanished to obscurity. His music later found a home in South Africa, where Apartheid fighters were drawn to the socially conscious material.

Searching for Sugar Man not only involved the rediscovery of the long-lost figure but pushed his comeback to the next level. Rodriguez appeared this weekend at California's Coachella festival, the pinnacle of North American hipsterdom and alt-music. The thing is, the singer-songwriter is now 70 and nearly blind from glaucoma – a shell of his former self. And his former self didn't exactly set the world on fire in the first place. He has not released any new material during his second act, not that it matters. Rolling Stone magazine, in a mad stroke of overstatement, last week declared Rodriguez a "certified superstar." Certified? Who certified him? I'm on the committee, and no one asked me.

On the same night Rodriguez played Coachella, Shuggie Otis appeared at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto. The former whiz kid releases his first album in nearly 40 years this week. The last we'd heard from him was in 1974, when the exacting singer-guitarist released Inspiration Information, a masterpiece of chill blues and strawberry-scented funk-soul and light psychedelia. Soon after, Otis disappeared, his cult status simmering and his legend growing as fans waited upon the return of the magic man with the marvellous 'fro and sharp cheekbones. As a guitarist, his reputation took on Hendrix-like proportions. And heck, he was probably fluent in the pompatus of love, just like Steve Miller.

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Otis's appearance last week on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon wasn't pristine. He can still play, but his singing was off. His performance was much better (triumphant, really) at the Phoenix, where punchy horns, dreamy R&B and Freddie King-style blues had a big crowd in a laid-back sort of delight. He looked great too – svelte and dashing at 59 years old, resembling a tango-instructing Lothario that husbands fear.

He debuted some of the material off the new Wings of Love, which, sadly, isn't the work his fans – including this Shuggie-ite – had hoped he was sitting on for all these years. Otis's new label (Sony) was only interested in releasing the album in tandem with the re-issue of Inspiration Information. Though the piggyback packaging was not exactly a Trojan Horse ploy, the collection of tracks recorded from 1975 to '87 is more a rarities package than a fully realized work.

Music appreciators hold on to their legends tight. Publications such as Mojo are in the business of keeping legends alive. Even the dead ones. Years ago, Rolling Stone speculated on Hendrix – what if he had lived? It was posited that he would have pursued his jazz leanings, and that he would have aged gracefully. Of course it is just as likely that Hendrix would have gone Syd Barrett – a crazy diamond, drug-damaged and reclusive.

Some day the neo-soul genius D'Angelo will release his first album since 2000's Voodoo. And perhaps the long-lost Sly Stone will finally get himself together and mount a Family reunion. We shouldn't get our hopes up, though. It's nice to think these beautiful but enigmatic artists are preserved in amber, but it is fantasy.

One of the strongest moments with Otis at the Phoenix was his solo acoustic-bottleneck version of Black Belt Sheriff. But the song was written in 1978. Legends and myths get better with age; talent and creativity go the other way.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More


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