He’s also a songwriter, guitarist, banjoist, bandleader and antiques dealer. You got a problem with that?
BY J. POET
Otis Taylor plays the blues, but his songs don’t deal with the tribulations of romance and the desire to cut loose on the weekend. Over the course of 13 albums, including When Negroes Walked the Earth, Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs and Recapturing the Banjo, Taylor has taken an uncompromising look at racism, slavery, poverty and America’s violent past, but he doesn’t consider himself a protest singer. “I’m a storyteller,” he says. “People are starving and people got lynched, but I never tell people what to think about it. I just tell the stories and let people draw their own conclusions. A good song can convey the story and emotion with very few words. I like people to use their imagination and add their own images to the songs. I’m like a painter that sketches out a picture and lets the viewer see things for themselves. That said, I don’t trip about making money. That frees me and allows me to give people a direct expression of my views.”
Taylor’s latest album, My World Is Gone, revolves around seven songs about the plight of our country’s Native American population. It was inspired by a conversation Taylor had with Mato Nanji, the extraordinary guitarist that leads the Native American blues-rock band Indigenous. “I was talking to Mato backstage at a Jimi Hendrix Tribute concert and, when I asked about the world of Native people, he said: ‘My world is gone.’ It threw me for a loop and I knew I had to write about those four words. It was a very heavy thing to say, way beyond, ‘My girlfriend left me.’ For him, his world was gone – literally. I’d already started working on an album, but those words changed my direction.”
(Below: “My Rain Is Gone” live)
For many years, Taylor made his living as an art and antiques dealer, specializing in Native American art, so he had his own life experience to draw on. “I’ve been to the Pine Ridge reservation and Seminole reservations in Florida. In a manner of speaking, the reservation is everywhere. My wife went to a meting of the Denver Historical Society and learned about the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, one of the few songs [on the album] based on a specific event. Most of the songs, like “Lost My Horse” or “Never Been to the Reservation,” could be about anybody.”
Last year, Nanji and Taylor played together for two days at Taylor’s annual Trance Blues festival, so they were ready to work when the sessions for My World Is Gone began. “I’m also the producer, so I don’t bring in anybody into the studio that I’ve never jammed with before. I have to set up things correctly, so all the sounds come together. Mato sings better than me and plays strong lead guitar; he wanted to play every [instrument.] I let him steal the show; it was quite an experience.”
The band played together live in the studio, but Taylor wouldn’t say much more than that about his production technique. “Nobody records like me, so I don’t want to divulge anything, but it doesn’t sound like a song till I put all the parts together. I do the arrangements, but there’s always input from others. It’s all done in the moment; that’s why records have a live feel.
“I shoot for emotion, not technique. When I make records, I imagine playing for people that are hearing music for the first time. If I make a mistake, I keep it, because mistakes take you to other places. If it’s a mistake made with emotion, then you can’t work around it or correct it, because it will change your direction.” Taylor pauses to laugh. “I ramble on like a crazy man when I talk about my technique. The biggest challenge, is when you mess up, you have to talk to yourself. It’s not a good situation when you’ve just told everyone else what to do, and you can’t do it yourself, but there you are.”
Many of his regular collaborators rejoin Taylor on My World Is Gone, including cornet player Ron Miles. His cornet meshes perfectly with the sound of Taylor’s banjo, producing instrumental harmonies with a warm, full tone. “One of the things I do well is create bizarre instrumental combinations. No one would think a cornet would sound good with a slide guitar and banjo, but you just find the best musicians you can and let them play together. If I see a great musician, I use him. Ron’s been on my last five albums.”
Taylor is always looking for new ways to express himself musically, so My World Is Gone includes Congolese guitar rhythms on “Gangster and Iztatoz Chauffeur” and “Green Apples.” He also uses what sounds like bluesy bent notes on the banjo. “They’re not bent notes, but pull offs,” he explains. (Pulling the finger off of a string after it’s plucked to produce a second note.) You can slide a bit on the banjo, but it’s mostly pulling off notes. I wanted to get a John Wayne meets spaghetti western feeling. I also did a waltz. I like doing unexpected things.”
Taylor has been dealing with the unexpected for most of his life, never content to go from A to B when there’s a whole alphabet of possibilities available. “My dad loved be boppers and jazz musicians. I can remember him walking around at the Monterey Jazz Festival talking to all the jazz cats he knew. He was friends with a lot of musicians. They used to party together and I had a brother who went to jail for selling heroin in the 50s. I’m the black sheep of the family, completely straight: no drugs, no alcohol or anything.
“My mom had a ukulele that I tried to play. I broke a string and went to the Denver Folklore Center to replace it. It was a music store, record store, music school and hang out for folkies. I walked in, just a little black kid, and they took a liking to me. I used to go there every day after school. They celebrated their 50th Anniversary last May with a big concert and I got to play at it. It was where I bought my first banjo.
“Why banjo? I have no idea. I didn’t even know it was an African instrument until ‘96 or ‘97. I just liked the sound. I had no idea that I’d make a living playing it, or that 45 years later someone would ask me why I picked it up. I have no fuckin’ idea. I do remember I was 15 and it felt right. Today the Home Banjo Company has a banjo named after me and the Santa Cruz Guitar Center has an Otis Taylor guitar. It’s quite a compliment.”
During his high school years, Taylor took his banjo with him wherever he went. He used to play it while riding his unicycle to school. “Looking back, I realize it’s a weird thing to do, but I didn’t think so at the time. I thought I wanted to be a circus clown for a while, but I didn’t follow up on it. I got the idea from a guy named Crazy Joe who used to ride [a unicycle] around the Folklore Center. He was a body builder and hung around at coffee houses. I don’t know what happened to him. They called him crazy because he rode a unicycle. It was easy to become infamous in those days.”
Taylor was a fine singer as well as a folk guitarist and banjo picker. When he decided to pursue a career in music, he put his banjo and guitar aside. For about a decade, he played in various blues rock bands, including The Butterscotch Fire Department Blues Band and the Otis Taylor Blues Band; T&O Short Line, with future Deep Purple guitar god Tommy Bolin; The 4-Nikators; and Zephyr, one of the most popular bands on the Denver/Boulder scene in the 70s. “Those were the years when everybody was into the blues,” Taylor recalls. “I was a lead singer and played Melodica and maracas. There was no point in playing guitar with a guy as good as Tommy (Bolin) around. I played bass in Zephyr and moved to England for a while.” While in London with the Otis Taylor Blues Band, he was almost signed to a record deal, but it didn’t pan out. He eventually quit the music business and became an antique dealer for most of the next 20 years.
“I still played banjo and guitar and wrote songs,” Taylor says, “But my wife never would have married a traveling musician. I’d play around the house or for friends, but wasn’t playing in public. The music business and the performance business is different and people get it confused. If you’re a songwriter and perform your songs, you’re suddenly doing business, but songwriting is just something you do.
“To me, songs are like dreams. I start messing with the guitar, or sing in the shower in a semi-conscious state, and a song comes to me. Usually without a lot of words, but I don’t have to write six verses to get an idea across. A couple of sentences will tell you what a song is about. During the hard touring years, I wrote a lot, but I got burned out. I thought I’d take a break and not write any more, but then a song would come to me.”
Eventually, Taylor played some of his tunes for his bass playing friend Kenny Passarelli. “He told me I had to make a record.” Taylor wasn’t sure, but the response to a one off gig at a small Denver club with Passarelli on bass and guitarist Eddie Turner. was so positive that more gigs followed. Eventually. Taylor went into the studio with Passarelli producing and made Blue Eyed Monster for his own small label, Shoelace Music. “It was just me, Kenny and Eddie and we only made 1,000 of ‘em,” he says. The album got rave reviews and led to When Negroes Walked the Earth, also on Shoelace. Critics raved about his songs and performance style, leading to a deal with Canada’s Northern Blues Music and a songwriting fellowship at the Sundance Film Festival.
“You go to Sundance for three weeks and study with five different composers and they tell you how to write music for movies. I was putting in 12 and 14-hour days. It’s intense work. You see movies, hang with film people all night, and do it again the next morning. They told me I could make it, if I moved to LA. That’s when I realized I didn’t want to go into the film composing business. Besides, I don’t read and write music.”
Since his return to performing, Taylor’s released a steady stream of albums and keeps up a comfortable touring schedule. He also brings the blues to the attention of young music lovers with a blues in the schools program called Writing the Blues. “When my little girl was in school, her teacher asked me to play for her class. Turning it into an ongoing Writing the Blues program was my wife’s idea. If the kids write a blues song, they’ll be more likely to remember the music. It gets the kids into the blues and gets the blues into the kids, so it’s a win-win situation. I tell ‘em you don’t have to be an eccentric artist to write a song, or be high or drunk. You can be an accountant and write beautiful songs; you just have to have something to say. I tell ‘em to write ‘I get the blues when…’ and they fill in the rest. Whatever makes them sad or frightened. One kid once said, ‘I get the blues when my fish coughs.’ I was jealous I didn’t write that. At the end of the lecture, the kids perform with me. I play and they get on stage and sing. Sometimes I pull the teachers and principals up and I give ‘em a hard time. I give them the blues and the kids love that.”
[Photo Credit: Len Irish]