Take a nighttime walk up Clark Street in Chicago’s River North neighborhood and be prepared for a detour into Blue Chicago. The small room has become a home to the city’s blues journeymen, old-timers who seem to just bleed sorrow from their callused fingertips. These are the Midwestern equivalent of Los Angeles’ Shuggie Otis. Despite his prodigious guitar talents and long-proven songwriting ability (he penned The Brothers Johnson’s 1977 hit “Strawberry Letter 23”), Otis has never garnered the appreciation his skills deserve. A collection of studio and live tracks recorded between 1975 and 2000, Wings of Love is the outcome of Otis’ unrequited love of pop music.
Unsurprising given Otis’ reclusive nature, most of the album’s tracks — now repackaged with 1974’s Inspiration Information — were recorded in isolation. As a result, the singles are aural snapshots of an era’s popular themes filtered through Otis’ blues guitar. The slow gait of “Walkin’ Down the Country” pulls together the soulful vocals of Marvin Gaye with late-’60s Sly Stone. Its funk carries over to the heavily layered “Tryin’ to Get Close to You”, with its then-taboo sensual bedroom dialogue now easily surpassed by Top 4o radio.
The compilation makes the ’80s seem a particularly experimental time for Otis. “Give Me a Chance” is early power-pop that is best left buried in dusty eight-tracks and brat-pack movies. However, thanks to the commercial success of the new class of R&B singers like The Weeknd and Frank Ocean, Otis’ sultry R&B has found a market in 2013. Backed by Otis’ own pulsating bassline, “Special” listens more contemporary now than 34 years ago; when artists like Blondie, Pink Floyd, and Olivia Newton-John were topping the Hot 100.
The affection may be a few decades late, but the industry is now deservedly reciprocating some of the love Otis has given over his lifetime.
Essential Tracks: “Special” and “Tryin’ To Get Close To You”