7/2/16 – Shuggie Otis – Strawberry Letter 23 – 1971/ The Brothers Johnson – Strawberry Letter 23 – 1977

Song Of The Day

Shuggie Otis - B:W pic - Early Seventies

Inspiration Information and Strawberry Letter 23 are Shuggie Otis’ best known songs, the latter a big hit for The Brothers Johnson from their album Right On Time (1977) produced under the guidance of Quincy Jones, the song reached No.5 on the US chart. It’s a song that you love if you know it or you’ve never heard it – I’m not sure how this happens. Perhaps a window opens in time, the song appears, lives for a few weeks and is gone. The Brothers Johnson version was a funkier version of the song and might have gone unnoticed if that wasn’t your genre – and genres are what people follow, not great songs or bands, genres. Do Metallica fans listen to Reggae? “But I listen to all kinds of music!” I don’t think most people do, or if they do they prefer Country or Rock or Soul or Electronic music or Punk or like the lady I met the other day said – Musicals. There’s not a lot of Salsa fans into The Who – or?

In 1971 crossover between genres might have been more acceptable but by 1977 when this was a hit for The Brothers Johnson, less so. The problem was that Strawberry Letter 23 wasn’t a hit in 1971 and a public that might have liked it didn’t get to hear it. The Brothers Johnson recorded their Dance Funk version of Strawberry letter 23 in 1977 and the spirit of the original was somewhat lost, despite The Brothers Johnsons admirable version. So if this wasn’t the genre you were listening to in 1977 you probably had no idea who wrote it and how could you imagine how the original version sounded, especially if you were into Punk Rock. And remember, in those days it wasn’t so easy to access music so thoroughly and why would you if you didn’t know it even existed?

Shuggie Otis was an immediate talent, playing on Al Kooper’s Super Session Volume Two when he was just 15 years old. He impressed B.B. King enough for him to comment that Otis was his “favourite new guitarist”. He also played bass on Peaches En Regalia on Frank Zappa’s classic album Hot Rats. He released, Here Comes Shuggie Otis in 1970, an impressive debut that featured top musicians of the time, this due to his fathers influence – Dad played piano and organ on the debut album. His father was Johnny Otis – musician, composer, arranger, bandleader, talent scout, disc jockey, record producer, television show host, artist, author, journalist, minister, and impresario  (and yes I cut and pasted this list). Dad discovered Etta James and Big Mama Thornton, Esther Phillips, Johnny Ace, Jackie Wilson and more. Johnny Otis lived a long life and died in 2012 aged 90.

Strawberry Letter 23 was from Otis’ second album Freedom Flight released in 1971. One of the highlights and unusual aspects of Strawberry Letter 23 is the guitar section that sounds like it might be more at home in a Progressive Rock band. Interestingly The Brothers Johnson also included this part in their version of the song considering it integral – Soul, Blues, Prog, Funk, Disco anybody?.

Inspiration Information was released in 1974. The title track reached No.56 on the R&B charts and then unbelievably, Otis stopped making solo albums. In spectacular fashion he declined an offer to join the Rolling Stones on tour. Quincy Jones offered to produce his next album, an offer he also declined. To this day Otis has not released a new album. He played sessions for his Dad and finally released some unreleased tracks as an album in 2013 on a CD reissue of Inspiration Information. The extra album called Wings Of Love is available through Legacy recordings and includes material from 1975 onwards including some rare live performances.

A few years ago Shuggie Otis finally went back out on the road playing on a package tour, third on the bill with Robert Cray and Taj Mahal. I was there, he didn’t play Strawberry Letter 23 and it seemed like he was adjusting to the idea of taking himself out onto the road again. But for all of us fans, Shuggie, we are so glad to have you back.

This is an excerpt from an interview he did with Wax Poetics in 2008. See full interview below:

What’s the real story behind “Strawberry Letter 23”

I’m glad you brought that up, because somebody made up some bullshit about that. When people used to ask me this back when I wrote it, I used to do a double take, like, “What do you mean, ‘What does it mean?’?” Just listen to the words and groove to it, you know? [laughs] That’s all you have to do! There are all kinds of stupid little “meanings” out there. I don’t know who made this stuff up. It has nothing to do with a scented letter, or somebody in the Army. Someone told me it was about somebody in jail, and I was like, “What the heck are you talking about?”

Here’s what it’s about, Ronnie—it’s about a boy and a girl who are in love with each other. And they’re in a place that doesn’t seem like earth. And you hear all this crazy, psychedelic stuff, but I wasn’t even on drugs when I wrote the song. I hadn’t even experienced using LSD yet. It wasn’t a drug song. I was thinking of a Xanadu kind of a place where everything was just cool, and there are no problems at all, you know? And so you kind of have to read between the lines of what I initially thought this song to be. It’s just like a paradise where these people in love are at, and they don’t even have to be together all the time to feel their love.

“Strawberry Letter” was that only thing I did all on my own from that album. It’s an incredible song to me now, more than it was then. Then, I was trying to write a pop song that would get on the radio, and it did. But in the back of my head, I was thinking that if I could write a song that was pop enough, that maybe I won’t hit, but somebody else would, and they’ll make it a hit. And it happened. Christmas of ’76, we find out that Quincy Jones is with the Brothers Johnson, and they’re going to do “Strawberry Letter.” We jumped and hollered. Quincy wanted to sign me at one point, but let’s get back to where you were. I don’t want to go into that.


Note that the song is called Strawberry Letter 23 – see the lyric.

Lyrics – Strawberry Letter 23

Hello, my love
I heard a kiss from you
Red magic satin playing near, too
All through the morning rain
I gaze – the sun doesn’t shine
Rainbows and waterfalls run through my mind
In the garden – I see west
Purple shower, bells and tea
Orange birds and river cousins dressed in green
Pretty music I hear
So happy and loud
Blue flowers echo from a cherry cloud
Feel sunshine sparkle pink and blue
Playgrounds will laugh

If you try to ask
Or is it cool? is it cool?
If you arrive and don’t see me
I’m going to be with my baby
I am free – flying in her arms, over the sea
Stained window, yellow candy screen
See speakers of kites – with velvet roses diggin’ freedom flight
A present from you – Strawberry letter 22
The music plays, I sit in for a few
A present from you – Strawberry letter 22
The music plays, I sit in for a few












Tags: , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply