Singer, songwriter, guitarist, banjoist
In a genre historically dominated by formulas and fixed musical elements, Otis Taylor has been a blues original. His hypnotic musical structures, with few changes of harmony, have drawn comparisons with blues great John Lee Hooker but resemble those of no other contemporary blues artist. Taylor has avoided using drums in his music, and his instrumentation features such novelties as a banjo or a cello. His storytelling lyrics hark back to the violent, wrenching, tragic world of early acoustic blues, discarding the sexy party themes favored by many musicians who make a living with the blues today. Asked by Mark Wolf of the Rocky Mountain News to categorize his music within a blues framework, Taylor responded that it was "Otis Taylor blues. Blues with attitude."
The son of a railroad worker, Otis Taylor was born in Chicago in 1948 to parents who had migrated from the South. Both his father, Otis Sr., and his mother, Sarah, were jazz fans, and "I Just Want to Make Love to You," by blues balladeer Etta James, was among his mother's favorite songs. The Taylors drifted into the orbit of drugs that surrounded the jazz world; Sarah Taylor served time on a heroin possession charge, and after Taylor's uncle was killed in a shooting, the family headed for Denver, where his grandmother offered them a place to live. Taylor himself, having observed these events in his early childhood, never used drugs at all, even though he came of age at the height of the 1960s counterculture.
Wanting to become a musician, Taylor asked his parents for a clarinet but was told there was no money to buy one. He found an outlet for his musical energy at the Denver Folklore Center, five blocks from his family's house. He had no money to pay for lessons, but he asked for them anyway. "Sometimes I'd have to wait a whole day to learn one song, or wait three or four days to get a song when they could get the right time to teach me," he recalled to Lynn Saxberg of the Ottawa Citizen. "I think I drove them crazy." The center, he told Mark Brown of the Rocky Mountain News, "was so important to my career I can't even express it." Taylor scraped together the money to buy a used ukulele, then a banjo. He liked the haunting and often bluesy Appalachian banjo music of white country musician Dock Boggs, but he later switched to guitar and harmonica because of the banjo's association with racist parodies of African American culture. He did not learn until much later that the banjo, whose history stretched back to Africa, had much deeper roots in black music than it had ever had among whites.
A natural performer from the start, Taylor was featured in a 1964 Denver Post photograph that showed him riding a unicycle while playing a banjo. That year he formed a group called the Butterscotch Fire Department Blues Band, which evolved into the Otis Taylor Blues Band. A tape made of Taylor at the Denver Folklore Center in 1967 revealed that much of the unique style that brought him to prominence three decades later was already in place. In the late 1960s it looked as though Taylor might benefit from the growth in electric blues music that accompanied the mass success of blues-based rock musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. He headed for England, where he opened for the folk-rock band Fairport Convention and was signed to the Blue Horizon label. His first album was shelved due to creative differences, however, and he returned to Denver.
The Denver scene of the 1960s produced several successful musical careers in addition to Taylor's—rock fretless bassist Kenny Passarelli was Taylor's childhood friend, and Deep Purple guitarist Tommy Bolin was his classmate at the folklore center. Taylor and Bolin joined forces in a band called T&O Short Line. Taylor also played with the band Zephyr and with an institution of Denver party music called the 4 Nikators in the early 1970s. By 1977, however, he had had enough. He retired from music and opened a small antiques business. Specializing in decorative arts and furniture of the early twentieth century, and later in slavery-era African-American memorabilia, he had an instinct for antiques, and made a good living searching out stock at junk shops and sales, and was still in business in the new millenium. Taylor was inspired to start an all-black bicycle racing team after reading a magazine story about black cyclist Major Marshall Taylor, who succeeded as a racer despite racial discrimination in the years around 1900. Taylor's team rose as high as fourth in national rankings in the mid-1980s.
Taylor kept in contact with Passarelli, who had toured with stars such as Elton John and who encouraged him to resume his own career. They joined forces with guitarist Eddie Turner in 1995 to play a benefit concert for a friend of Taylor's, and the response led the three to begin performing around the Denver area. In 1997, with Passarelli as producer, Taylor released the album Blue Eyed Monster, following it up a year later with When Negroes Walked the Earth. In 2000 Taylor worked on new material with the help of a composition fellowship from the Sundance Institute in Park City, Utah. He was signed to the Northern Blues label in 2001 and released White African. The following year Respect the Dead earned him a best new artist nod at the annual W.C. Handy Awards show, at the age of 53. In 2003 he was signed to the prestigious Telarc label.
Each Taylor album had a slightly different sound. His music might be predominantly electric or acoustic. He used various instruments—a trumpet, mandolin, a steel guitar, or a cello—as brushstrokes on his sonic canvas, and he returned to the banjo with a full understanding of its African roots on the 2005 album Below the Fold. Taylor's daughter Cassie joined his band as a bassist and vocalist. Harmonically, Taylor tended toward static repeated patterns that fit the ideas being expressed in a particular song. He used the phrase "trance blues" to describe his music. According to G. Brown of the Denver Post, it had "a drumless yet driving groove, reminiscent of John Lee Hooker's one-chord boogie."
For the Record …
Born 1948 in Chicago, IL; son of Otis (a railroad worker) and Sarah Taylor; moved with family to Denver, CO; married; children: a daughter, Cassie. Education: Attended Manual High School, Denver, CO; took music classes at Denver Folklore Center.
Formed Butterscotch Fire Department Blues Band, Denver, CO, 1964; band changed name to Otis Taylor Blues Band; moved to England, mid-1960s; signed to Blue Horizon label but never released album; returned to Denver; performed with bands T&O Short Line, the 4 Nikators, and Zephyr, early 1970s; retired temporarily from performing, 1977; operated antiques business, Denver, 1977–; coached professional bicycle racing team; performed benefit concert, 1995; persuaded by musician and friend Kenny Passarelli to resume career; released album Blue Eyed Monster, on own Shoelace label, 1997; released When Negroes Walked the Earth, 1998; signed to Northern Blues label, 2001; released two albums on Northern Blues; signed to Telarc label, 2003; released albums Truth Is Not Fiction, Double V, Below the Fold.
Awards: Sundance Institute (Park City, UT), composition fellowship, 2000; W.C. Handy Award, Best New Artist, 2002.
Addresses: Home—Boulder, CO. Management office—Shoelace Music, P.O. Box 3564, Boulder, CO 80307.
The lyrics of Taylor's songs—all originals in a genre where most other singers tend to reinterpret older material—were on the dark side. "I'm not an angry person," Taylor observed to Buddy Blue of the San Diego Union-Tribune. "I'm just telling stories and you decide what you think about them…. I'm just good at writing about dark things." Many of Taylor's songs had an element of social criticism, touching on the difficult conditions faced by African Americans throughout their history. Sometimes, as in "Mama's Selling Heroin," he drew on his own family's experiences. "Kitchen Towel," from Taylor's 2003 release Truth Is Not Fiction, dealt with a quadruple suicide among a group of Native Americans. Some Taylor songs, such as "Rosa Rosa" (a tribute to civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks), boiled down their subjects to simple phrases that matched the hypnotic quality of his music. "Rosa Rosa," Taylor told Wolf, "just came to me. They all just come to me like dreams."
Hoping to build a new generation of blues musicians and listeners, Taylor has participated in a "Blues in the Schools" program operated by the Colorado Blues Society. His own career has been hampered somewhat by the preference of American blues promoters for upbeat music. "They want party blues," he observed to Curtis Ross of the Tampa Tribune. "They say, 'Why are you playing this dark stuff? It gets people upset. How can you play sad blues?' I thought 'blues' means sad. Blues guys have always played stuff like 'St. James Infirmary.' Something got twisted and it went in another direction." But Taylor has built a strong following in Europe; Truth Is Not Fiction earned an album-of-the-year nomination at France's national music awards. By the mid-2000s he had emerged as a critical favorite in the United States as well, and was continuing to write new music quickly, perhaps making up for time lost during the two-decade hiatus in his career.
Blue Eyed Monster, Shoelace, 1997.
When Negroes Walked the Earth, Shoelace, 1998.
White African, Northern Blues, 2001.
Respect the Dead, Northern Blues, 2002.
Truth Is Not Fiction, Telarc, 2003.
Double V, Telarc, 2004.
Below the Fold, Telarc, 2005.
Boston Globe, August 7, 2004, p. C4.
Denver Post, September 20, 2002, p. FF02; March 6, 2003, p. F1.
Guardian (London, England), November 10,, 2005, p. 22; April 19, 2006, p. 36.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November 5, 2004, p. A2.
Ottawa Citizen (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), July 6, 1999, p. C7.
Rocky Mountain News, September 27, 2003, p. D5; April 26, 2004, p. D5; December 7, 2004, p. D10.
San Diego Union-Tribune, February 16, 2006, Night & Day section, p. 17.
Tampa Tribune, February 10, 2006, p. 20.
"Otis Taylor—Bio," Otis Taylor Official Website, http://www.otistaylor.com (November 13, 2006).
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