Thursday, January 05, 2006

Forgotten 45: "Strawberry Letter 23"

In the 1970s, one did not generally turn to R&B acts for psychedelia. Sure, there was Sly and the Family Stone's 1971 album There's a Riot Goin' On, and George Clinton's Parliafunkadelicment Thang was doing some material that was fairly far out there--but it wasn't until the 80s and 90s that you could hear a lot of R&B records that made you think dope was being smoked while they were being created. One trippy exception to the rule was "Strawberry Letter 23," originally written and recorded by Shuggie Otis in 1971 on his album Freedom Flight. At the time, Otis was an 17-year-old musical prodigy who had already recorded two albums. The song was reportedly a tribute to his girlfriend, who often wrote him letters on strawberry-scented paper.

Listening to Otis' music now, you're struck by how far out of its time it seems--you'd never peg "Strawberry Letter 23" as being from 1971. His version is good (and was included as a bonus track on the 2001 rerelease of his 1974 album Inspiration Information), but the Brothers Johnson's hit version is classic. They'd known of the song for several years before putting it on their 1977 album Right on Time, where they took a lyric that's pure stoned nonsense and funked it up until it sounded like poetry.

The part everybody remembers about the Brothers' version is the guitar solo in the middle which, as it turns out, is played by neither of the Brothers, but by veteran session musician Lee Ritenour. He repeats the same pattern over and over, taking it repeatedly to a higher key and back down again until the effect is a lot like, well, sex. That is, the tension keeps rising beyond the point where you think you can stand it (but you can), and when it finally breaks, you float off into the ether, not caring if you ever come back.

Blue flower echo from a cherry cloud, indeed.

(A&M 1949, chart peak: #5, September 24, 1977)


At 3:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In recent years, I know of only two radio stations that have played "Strawberry Letter 23" on its airwaves...Magic 98 in Madison, and, whatever station I happen to be doing a live radio show on that particular day. What a GREAT song! -Shark

At 10:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I read on another blog once that Rit's solo caused this aspiring studio guitarist to pack up his bags and leave LA. Thanks to his story - I had no idea that was Ritenour - great solo!


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