'I'm a different person now . . .'
After years in obscurity, Shuggie Otis is enjoying a renaissance. JIM CARROLLraises a cheer
You must have been happy to realise people were still digging your music even during your lengthy lay-off?
It was reassuring, it was one of the things that kept me right. I was going through a slump and then I went on the internet and saw all the these people giving me praise. I had to turn the page because I had more fans than I knew. I thought people had forgotten about me for years but they hadn’t. It took me a while to get myself back together and start writing again and start playing for hours instead of minutes. Now, I’m totally back into it with a newfound love for music.
So it’s all down to the internet?
The great thing about the internet is you can get that sort of publicity all over the world. What I don’t like is the free downloading bit. That’s my only gripe. There has to be a way to change that someday. I’m not the only one. I mean, I wonder why someone would buy music when they can download it for free. If I was real poor, I’d download everything for free but musicians don’t like that. There’s no telling how much money I could be making or could have made. It’s not that the computer is good or evil, it’s the people using the computer. We need to invent a new computer! I try to stay away from the internet, I prefer old movies on the TV.
You’re touring at the moment. What’s the best thing about that?
I’ve got the best band I’ve ever had playing with me. It took me a while to find them because I wanted the right, exact people and I was very, very fortunate. I feel comfortable onstage with them. You need empathy, the vibe, respect, wanting to play the music, being serious about it. You have to be serious about it.
You’ve played guitar with some legends and you were even asked to join the Rolling Stones at one stage. Who stands out for you?
BB King was a wonderful person. He was a nice man, very honourable and encouraging, no funny stuff.
One of the most memorable times was when I played with Ray Charles. We played in RPM Studios, which is round the corner from where I grew up. My father-in-law got me the gig. Before the session, the engineer told me not to play loud because Ray doesn’t like a loud guitar so I turn it down to one. Ray comes in, plays these licks in E and looks up at me because he knows I’m behind him so I play along. Then, another lick and the same thing before he goes, “guitar player, turn up your guitar”. That was something to remember, Ray Charles telling me to turn my guitar up.
You’ve a new album coming out in 2013. How’s the writing coming along for that?
I am starting to write again, guess I had bad writer’s block for a while. Well, a few years (laughs). I used to put myself down because I wasn’t successful. Or somebody didn’t like my song straight away and I’d be a little sarcastic and cutting, but I’m a different person now with a different outlook.
I have written some new songs which will come out next year on a new album on my label Shugiterius. Writing is not always easy. Sometimes, a song will come along and you’ll finish the words and the music, the whole song, within an hour. Sometimes, it could take weeks to get the whole thing right.
Musically. where are you going with the new songs?
Are we talking Strawberry Letter 23 and Aht Uh Mi Hed or something different? Those songs are in the past and I don’t want to try to emulate anything I’ve done before. That’s not my style, I like to go forward, I’m not a “hey, I got a formula” guy. I approach each song and idea differently. I want to start branching out into different styles too, go beyond the rock and blues thing. Rock and blues are part of me, even though I want to write for orchestras.
Of late, I’ve been checking out Beethoven. I don’t mind being called old-school because I’m real old school. Those classical cats, I like Debussy and Ravel and Handel and Bach. And I want to get more into jazz. Rock, rhythm, blues, classical and jazz, that’s me.
Shuggie Otis plays Whelan’s, Dublin, tonight and Sugar Club, Dublin, tomorrow