Shuggie Otis - 1971 – Freedom Flight
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek
1971’s Freedom Flight is perhaps, in its own way, every bit as adventurous and regal as Shuggie Otis’ masterpiece, Inspiration Information. Produced by Shuggie’s father, R&B legend Johnny Otis, the album features seven stellar, genre bending cuts, most of which were written or co-written by Shuggie. Oh yes, he was 15 was the time. Shuggie not only arranged the date, he played everything from guitars and bass organ to various percussion instruments.
Upon listening to Freedom Flight, the influence of Jimi Hendrix is everywhere. Not so much in Shuggie’s playing, but in its texture and production. He and Johnny had obviously spent a lot of time listening to Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland.
Freedom Flight boasts Shuggie’s single greatest composition: “Strawberry Letter 23“, a monster platinum single for the Brothers Johnson. But it’s Shuggie’s version that stands the test of time best. It’s slower, much more baroque and paisley than the cover. The tenderness in Shuggie’s voice as he intones the lyrics is a real draw. “Me And My Woman“, is one of the funkiest blues tunes ever recorded, with its dirty keyboard bassline that George Clinton stole wholesale three years later.
In addition, two long instrumental works that end the album, “Purple” and the title tracks are visionary and expansive with jaw-droppingly virtuoso guitar playing that is so tastefully, soulfully, and elegantly executed it’ still hard to believe after all these decades that a 15 year old ever played them: Stevie Ray Vaughan had nothing on Shuggie. Freedom Flight is just as important as Inspiration Information. It’s a bit rawer, not quite as lush, but it is every bit as visionary and groundbreaking.
A1 Ice Cold Daydream 2:27
A2 Strawberry Letter 23 3:57
A3 Sweet Thang 4:05
A4 Me and My Woman 4:15
A5 Someone’s Always Singing 3:22
B1 Purple 7:05
B2 Freedom Flight 12:48
By Mark Lager
Shuggie Otis is a guitar genius whose talents were not fully recognized until decades after his seminal work was created.
Freedom Flight is only 38 minutes yet it’s such a lush listening voyage.
Barreling out onto the streets with “Ice Cold Daydream“, the funky organ and fiery guitar could be the accompaniment to a car chase scene–soundtrack to a lost Blaxploitation film, similar to Curtis Mayfield’s score for Superfly.
Shuggie’s greatest song, the poetic love ballad “Strawberry Letter 23“, is audio bliss, one of the most perfectly produced tracks in pop music history.
Tinkling bells and crystalline celeste, carnival organ, and Shuggie’s soaring guitar–a celestial companion piece to Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing”. The kaleidoscopically colorful lyrics are an ode to his young muse. Shuggie’s exquisitely arpeggiated guitar chords set sail for distant horizons, psychedelic phasing and sweeping soloing echoing off faraway to those cherry clouds he sees in his teenage lover’s eyes.
While “Strawberry Letter 23” is airy and ethereal, the innocence of one’s first love, “Sweet Thang” (co-written with Shuggie’s father) is a dark, down’n’dirty, and swampy groove, Shuggie’s bottleneck guitar and the deeply soulful background female vocalists laying down an atmosphere thick as molasses–a primitive ambiance close to Funkadelic’s “Music For My Mother”.
“Me And My Woman” is a standard blues song about how unpredictable women can be in a man’s eye bolstered by wah-wah guitar from Shuggie and a block rockin’ rhythm section, heavy on Wilton Felder’s bass beats.
“Someone’s Always Singing” ushers in the return of female background vocalists Venetta Fields, Clydie King, and Sherlie Matthews–the awe-inspiring women who elevated Gene Clark’s No Other to such transcendent heights. It’s a spiritual song, gospel in style, which tells you no matter how hard life gets, you’ve gotta keep on keepin’ on. It fades out with furious flute playing (Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, released that same year, comes to mind.)
“Purple” is a slow burning blues jam accented by George Duke’s smoky Hammond organ and James Bradshaw’s down home harmonica, givin’ you vibes of the closing song after hours at a bar or back porch smokin’ and drinkin’ ’round a bonfire.
The title track, “Freedom Flight“, gracefully stretches out over its thirteen incandescent minutes, fading in quietly with gentle wind chimes which continue throughout this hypnotic and entrancing improvisation. George Duke’s evocative Fender Rhodes, Richard Aplanalp’s sighing tenor saxophone, and Shuggie’s mystical, floating guitar explorations summon the same late night studio magic as Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way.
You could listen to those enchanting guitar textures forever.