Shuggie Otis Spreads His 'Wings,' 40 Years Later

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Most listeners know Shuggie Otis from his song, “Strawberry Letter 23,” which went on to be one of the big hits of 1977 in a version by the Brothers Johnson. But musicians always knew there was more to Otis than one hit single. Al Kooper and Frank Zappa each worked with him, and The Rolling Stones even asked him to replace guitarist Mick Taylor when Taylor left the band. However, Otis declined; he had just released his 1974 album, Inspiration Information, which would be his last record for 40 years.

Now, Inspiration Information is being reissued, and with it, Wings Of Love, an album of previously unheard songs, is being released for the first time. In an interview with Soundcheck host John Schaefer, Otis looks back at his career.

Otis, on being one of the first musicians to use a drum machine on a record:  

At first when I got, I’d go home and I could play with it, like, any time I wanted to. I had my own little private drummer there who wouldn’t talk back to me and he’d keep perfect time, you know? So that’s how I wrote a lot of those songs — just messing around, jamming with that little Rhythm King [drum machine].

On how he almost joined The Rolling Stones:

[Keyboardist] Billy Preston called me; he was with the Stones at the time. I think they were in the room with him. And he said, “I’m sitting here with the Stones, and they want to know if you want to join.” I was having a gig that night with my own group, and I was just starting to get into my own groove. It was nothing against any of these groups, but I didn’t want to be a sideman anymore…. I knew where I wanted to go. I knew that I wanted to control the show anyway. I knew that much.”

On why his most well-known song is called “Strawberry Letter 23,”even though the line in the song is “Strawberry Letter 22”:

[T]he song is really about a boy and a girl who write letters to each other. So the 22nd letter is delivered by the girl to the boy, and so he writes a song called, “Strawberry Letter 23.”