An unusual path to the blues
Otis Taylor's music as unpredictable as his tortuous route
Published March 2006
By Jim Trageser
Otis Taylor's path to the blues was as unusual as his vision of the music is unique.
And so if blues purists blanch at the thought of Taylor's quirky, individualistic music being classified next to that of Mississippi John Hurt or Lightning Hopkins, perhaps they will excuse him given the tortuous route he had to travel to get there.
Taylor discovered the blues only after his family relocated from his native Chicago to Colorado a relocation motivated by an uncle's murder. With both parents being jazz fans ("Brubeck, Coltrane, that kind of stuff"), it was at the Denver Folklore Center that an adolescent Taylor began his lifelong love affair with the blues.
"I had never really heard country blues," Taylor said by phone during a break from touring in support of "Below the Fold," his 2005 CD on the Telarc label. "I had listened to Etta James, but mostly jazz."
After finding some success as a musician in his early adult years, in 1977 Taylor ended up taking a hiatus from the music business for almost two decades becoming a successful antiques dealer instead. It was only in 1995 that he returned to public performance and recording.
While, as mentioned, some view Taylor's "trance blues" as outside the blues mainstream, he dismisses such arguments as basically meaningless.
"How can you tell me the blues can't progress? How close is Mississippi John Hurt to Stevie Ray Vaughan?
"Blues has been progressing for hundreds of years; blues started when they walked off the ship and were told to stop singing, when they started singing gospel in the fields. When they were singing in the fields, that was not Muddy Waters."
Taylor remains fascinated by different instruments. He's just as likely to play banjo or mandolin as guitar, for instance. While the banjo was developed by black slaves in the Americas trying to replicate the instruments they remembered from home, it has mostly been abandoned by the blues community Taylor excepted.
"I don't know" why, Taylor said of his love of the banjo. "Maybe it was the African sound. You don't know why, you just gravitate to it. It's really sad, the Appalachian stuff.
"I actually played fiddle once. Somebody stole it. I should have kept on going. I didn't have a good left hand, but I had a good right hand."
Just as his own vision of the blues is eclectic and quirky, Taylor welcomes the growing popularity of blues around the world with homegrown blues bands springing up from Japan to Yugoslavia.
"Jazz and blues are what America offered the world," Taylor explained. "Classical is what Europe offered the world."
And yet, black Americans are unlikely to listen to the music their ancestors created.
Taylor, who is black, has a fairly stoic attitude about the paucity of black fans at most of his shows.
"There aren't too many black fans; not as many as I'd like," he said. "Blacks tend to be on the cutting edge; they're the tastemakers. Once they've done it, they're finished with it. We're a pop-oriented culture; and blues is old-fashioned."
Still, Taylor said when he plays shows in predominantly black neighborhoods, blacks will come out.
"If I play in front of black people and I get into a groove, they'll start relating to it. They'll feel it."
As for the future, while Taylor is no great fan of the large, corporate record companies, he is equally unsure about the impact the Internet will have on non-mainstream musicians such as himself.
"We don't know we won't know for 100 years," he said when asked if the 'Net will be a boon for musicians and fans.
"There's a lot more freedom, and more competition; more choices and the choices are confusing."