Listen to this track, a unique slice of psych-pop-soul from R&B wunderkind Shuggie Otis. It’s his glorious ‘Strawberry Letter 23’, a piece of delectable ear candy that seemed to indicate that soul-funk may be headed in something of a Prince-ly direction. The song comes from Shuggie’s 1971 LP Freedom Flight, also appearing in an early form on an album produced by his father, bandleader Johnny Otis two years before that.
This song, written by a fifteen year old Otis as a paean to his ladylove at the time who had a propensity for strawberry scented love letters, was a hit for the Brothers Johnson a few years later, and for R&B pinup Tevin Campbell in the early 90s. But it’s Shuggie’s version that stands out for me, particularly with its aural sunshine outro. As far as I’m concerned, that outro could last for days and I’d still love it.
The sheer pop perfection of the track makes it undeniable, punctuated by mallet percussion as a lead instrument, with guitars, bass, keyboards, and even early models of drum machines, layering the sound into a glorious sonic dessert, and played solely by teenager Shuggie. This model of recording by a multi-instrumentalist producer on songs that cross genres and then back again would be something of a pioneering approach to making records at the time (see also Todd Rundgren). Shuggie would never rise above cult status. Yet, as previously mentioned, burgeoning talents like Prince were certainly taking notes.
Shuggie had been a part of his father’s bands as a guitarist, playing in clubs while very much underage, and often times sporting fake moustache and shades to keep from being spotted. He also played with Frank Zappa, Al Kooper, and was also courted to tour with the Rolling Stones. Needless to say, Shuggie Otis was a musical prodigy. The Inspiration Information album would show him to be an ambitious producer who seemed to ignore the high walls between the rock world, the jazz world, and the world of soul-funk. ‘Strawberry Letter 23″ in particular revealed him to be an incredibly imaginative songwriter and arranger to boot.
But Otis’ reputation faltered, and by the end of the 1970s, and his potential as a household name faded despite his considerable talent. But, he continues as an active musician, having collaborated more recently with with Mos Def. This song of Otis’ and other songs have been sampled heavily by artists ranging from Digible Planets to Dr. Dre to Beyoncé.