Black and blues
Local bluesman Otis Taylor recaptures the banjo
by Dylan Otto Krider
There are a few bits of trivia you have to know about Otis Taylor if you’re going to write about him:
1) In the first published photograph of Taylor, which appeared in the Denver Post in 1964, he was riding to school on a unicycle while playing the banjo. He was 16 years old.
2) Taylor’s latest album, Recapturing the Banjo, is about taking back the West African instrument for black people who are turned off by the white-face stereotypes. He has always had at least one banjo hanging on his wall, some dating back to the 1800s.
3) Otis is black. Not black black (he has blue eyes), but black in all the ways that mattered growing up in the ’60s. In case he forgets, people often remind him. When Obama got elected, he says, “I got phone calls from all kinds of different people offering congratulations.”
4) Taylor gave up music for 19 years and supported himself by dealing Native American items and antiques before picking the guitar back up in 1995.
5) As a blues musician, he kicks ass.
However, there are a few things about Taylor we were not aware of after reading the various articles written about him. For example, he owns a beach ball-sized collection of shoestrings, and he’s got an electric banjo and guitar named after him. The latter, which lists at $6,900, has no frets above #14. The logic of that design comes from an old blues saying: there ain’t no money beyond the fifth fret.
You hardly ever see Taylor without his trademark cap. He usually wears one with a University Bicycles logo, because of the work the owner has done for Native American kids. He tried to go without it once. Just once. “I went to this dude ranch,” Taylor says, “and walked out of the car without a hat on, and a bird fucking shit on my head.”
We have our interview in the living room of his Boulder home, which is surprisingly contemporary for a former antiques dealer. In a way, it’s a perfect feng shui balancing of old and new, modern enough to be relevant, yet rooted enough in the past to stay timeless, which is a good way to describe his music, as well.
One of Taylor’s gifts (there are many) is his intuitive ability to reinvent art without sacrificing its soul. He takes stories from the modern world and discovers new ways to make them eternal.
In many ways, Taylor has spent his life trying to find a balance between eccentricity and tradition.
When his mother was 16, her older brother was shot in a craps game, and a few years later they decided to move out West, where racial tensions weren’t quite as tense. Denver seemed pretty laid back, by comparison.
His parents became beboppers, and his father’s jazz inspired the paintings that now hang on Taylor’s walls. “When I went to a friend’s house and they didn’t have any incense, I was confused,” Taylor says. He rebelled by returning to the same gritty, sad Delta music that his parents tried to distance themselves from.
Taylor was always a bit of an odd egg. The unicycle habit comes from his original aspiration to be a clown. For a time, he even learned tightrope walking and trapeze, but he was a horrible gymnast and found himself spending more and more time at the Denver Folklore Center after school, where the teachers would give him free lessons between classes.
Even among blues musicians, he’s something of an oddity. He doesn’t drink or smoke and has been married 23 years. “My parents did drink, did smoke, did do drugs,” he says. “I didn’t have the fixation about it because there was no mystery to it.” (His song “Mama’s Selling Heroin” is about his mother’s drug bust.)
He eventually relocated to London and landed a record deal with the British blues label Blue Horizon in 1969, which ultimately fell through. At the time, music was more about getting girls, and it wasn’t until the ’90s that he got serious.
He caught the music bug again when he struck up a friendship with Kenny Passarelli, who played bass for Joe Walsh, Elton John and others. When the sponsor of Taylor’s bicycle racing team asked him to perform for the opening of Buchanan’s coffee shop, there was no turning back.
“When I met my wife, she didn’t even know that I played music,” Taylor says. He had a piano and some old banjos, but she wasn’t aware it was anything more than a hobby. When he told her he wanted to be a musician, it must have sounded like the midlife crisis from hell.
“Some guys, when they go through their midlife crisis, cheat on their wives,” says Taylor’s daughter Cassie. “My dad wanted to be a rock star.”
They went into the studio and recorded a self-released CD just to have something for the kids. His wife kept saying, “There won’t be a second.” But there was with When Negroes Walked the Earth and then White African, which led to a Playboy review, which led to a deal with Canadian label Northern Blues and four Handy nominations in 2002.
Cassie thinks her mom finally warmed to the idea of having a blues-musician husband when they got the royalty checks for his songs on the soundtracks of The Shooter and American Idol Gives Back.
When Cassie was 16 and Taylor found himself without a bassist for his European tour, he told his daughter to start practicing or lose her allowance. After three weeks, she was on tour with her dad.
“I pretty much hated my dad by the end of it,” she says. “I didn’t really have a summer. I’m like a teenager with raging hormones… and he didn’t let me go shopping or hang out with the boys.”
In retrospect, she thinks he did the right thing.
“A lot of younger musicians get caught up in the lifestyle,” she says. “My dad used the music industry as a business as opposed to a lifestyle. It was a career.”
Taylor considers himself a storyteller first. He has a unique talent for taking personal narratives from his own life and making them universal. But there are times when the ethnic type casting gets on his nerves.
“I don’t sing, ‘Vote for Obama,’” he says. “I write about things that get into people’s heads and disturb them. I don’t know how I do it.
They say, ‘Whoa, man, he’s writing about all these black issues!’ But if you go through the songs… ‘Kitchen Towel’ is about Native Americans, ‘House of the Crosses’ is about Russians, ‘Took Their Land’ is about Japanese internment camps. Hungry people can be anybody.”
Taylor doesn’t try to downplay the importance of race in his life; he just doesn’t want to be defined in one-dimensional terms. He knows exactly who he is and where he came from. “I don’t know much about the blues, but I’m good at being black,” he says. “So, don’t ask me about the blues. I’m not a historian. I don’t have to be a historian because it’s part of my culture.”
For More Info:
Otis Taylor performs at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 31, at Nissi’s, 2675 N. Park Drive, Lafayette, 303-665-2757.