Labeling Otis Taylor a blues musician is painting the man in an unneeded corner. After all, the Colorado-based mutli-instrumentalist is fluent playing guitar, banjo, mandolin, harmonica, and is a celebrated singer/songwriter. Over his illustrious career, Taylor’s music has blurred the lines of blues, jazz, psychedelic, Americana and roots rock.
“Well, I am a blues-based musician, but the thing is, my blues isn’t like the porch blues that so many associate with the blues,” Otis Taylor said from his home in Bolder, Colorado. “I mean there are all kinds of blues: there are African blues, Jimi Hendrix was an exceptional blues player. But no one ever wonders what Robert Johnson was listening to or Son House was vibing on. I mean, what were their fathers listening to? It goes far beyond what people think blues is, you get what I am saying?”
From the first question of our conversation it is easy to tell Taylor is a deep thinker, a well-educated man who knows and embraces his history of music and of race.
“I am a high school dropout. I am an old man who has learned from life’s experiences.”
Taylor’s life experiences shine on his latest effort, ‘Fantasizing About Being Black,’ where he uses the blues sound as his base, but explores a wide swath of influences, just as he explores his heritage. It is an eccentric album which ventures into a historical journey of thought-provoking songs about Taylor’s lineage in Africa, his brethren in the Mississippi Delta, and the reoccurring, and unfortunately, recent topics of the different levels of racism. The topics may come off heavy, but they capture the resilience of man.
Taylor’s follow-up to his 2015 psychedelic masterpiece ‘Hey Joe Opus/Red Meat’ couldn’t come at a better time. As we talked, it was January 20, the morning of the Inauguration of the President and you could tell it affected Taylor deeply.
“Writing these songs, it’s just comes natural. I don’t know much about the blues, but I know about being black, and that’s what I write,” he said. “I am not a protest singer, I am not telling you what to do, but I hope my music will make you feel, ya see. The problems I faced as a teen we are still facing today, and it doesn’t look to be getting any better. I am 68, but on stage I am 40. I got a lot of life in me, but I wonder how much freedom I have left.”
Taylor isn’t alone on his thoughts of freedom and the next four years.
Released on his own Trance Blues Festival label, Taylor’s 15th studio album is an adventure into African history, which you probably never learned in school. The compassion in his convictions are backed with an innovative sound, finding Taylor experimenting with everything from African sounds to New Orleans jazz and Chicago blues. ‘Fantasizing About Being Black’ feels more like a cinematic soundtrack than a blues record. Taylor is a true storyteller.
“I just make up things, really,” Taylor said of his creative style. “I produced my last ten albums because I know what I am looking for; I know what’s in my head when I am writing a song. I just hear things that others don’t hear. I never set out to write a certain type of song, it just…happens.”
Taylor’s creative spirit came early, growing up with a father who used to paint while listening to jazz records. Taylor describes him as a “hipster,” a father who had dreams of his son getting into jazz music and going to art school, but the young Taylor, like many kids do, rebelled against what his parents wanted. Taylor first took up the banjo, but when he learned that the banjo originally was an African instrument turned into a white bluegrass instrument, in part through the derogatory black-face minstrel shows of the 19th century, he stopped playing the instrument and took to the guitar and harmonica.
“I didn’t particularly like jazz music when I was a kid, so I rebelled and got into folk music,” Taylor said with a laugh. “A young black kid getting into white folk music in the ’60s. That was rebellious in my house.”
Taylor’s rebellion led him to meet a 14-year-old rock star named Tommy Bolin, and the two started playing music together and formed a band.
“Me and Tommy were in a 1950s cover band called the Fornicators,” Taylor recalled. “We were playing ’50s songs during the ’70s; nobody was doing that then. But this was in Bolder [Colorado]. We were just looking for something to do, something different. This was after Tommy was in Zephyr, then he went on to play with Joe Walsh in the James Gang and got the call to go join Deep Purple. Ya see, I knew Tommy before he was a big rock star. We were just teens exploring music. That’s how I always remember him, not as some big rock star,” Taylor said of his friend, who died in 1976 at the age of 25.
Taylor’s brush with greatness didn’t end when Bolin left Colorado. There was that one time in Denver where he crossed paths with the greatest guitar player of all time – Jimi Hendrix.
“I was at this house party or something in Denver, and Hendrix was in town with the Experience. He was playing bass; Noel Redding was playing bass too, and Mitch Mitchell was playing drums. They were just fooling around, so I jumped up and pulled out my harmonica and started playing along. I looked up and saw Hendrix looking back at me, and he gave me this huge smile, like ‘Yeah, that sounds good,’ then his bodyguards came up and escorted me off stage. That was my brief encounter with Jimi. I never got to say a word to him; all I got was that smile and that is all right with me.”
Taylor befriended former Thin Lizzy member and blues guitar great Gary Moore before Moore’s untimely death in 2011. Taylor was the support act for three consecutive Moore tours from 2007 to 2009, and Taylor played on Moore’s last album, ‘Bad for You Baby” (Eagle Records, 2008).
When he wasn’t playing music with future and current rock stars, Taylor was in various blues-based bands which toured extensively in the United States and Europe. But Taylor became disillusioned with the music industry after Bolin’s death and left music in 1977. Taylor went on to marry in 1985, and he and his wife raised two daughters. Taylor’s eldest daughter Cassie followed in her father’s footsteps, becoming a successful blues bassist and solo artist. Taylor himself became a bicycle racing coach and worked as an antiques dealer.
“You know, the two are really similar in that with antiques, you can learn about maps, furniture, decorative items, clocks, and so on. In music you can learn about jazz, blues, rock and more. Both are never ending, really. It can be a blessing and a curse, depending on how far you want to go back and learn.”
In 1995, Taylor came back to music and released his debut solo album ‘Blue-Eyed Monster’ in 1996. Since the start of his solo career, Taylor has pulled no punches in his lyrical content, often focusing on the hardships of life, especially for the black man, including poverty, slavery, racism and murder. Because of his bold lyrical writing and varied musical styles, Taylor has been earning praise from critics and won countless awards, including 12 Blues Music Awards nominations, while earning top honors for “album of the year” from such blues authorities as Blues411, Blues Music magazine, and Premier Guitar magazine. Down Beat magazine critics’ poll has named five of Taylor’s releases as Blues CD of the Year. Living Blues readers’ poll awarded Taylor (along with Etta James) the Best Blues Entertainer title in 2004. In 2001, he was awarded a fellowship to the Sundance Film Composers Laboratory. More recently, Taylor’s ‘Hey Joe Opus Red Meat’ album is on display in the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture.
“All those awards are nice, and they do mean something – it is nice to be recognized for your art. But art is perception. People might see a Coca-Cola sign and just think it is a Coca-Cola sign. But if you put a painting of a Coca-Cola sign in an art gallery, people will see it differently. Ya see what I am saying?”
Taylor has also had his songs featured in major motion pictures – the Mark Wahlberg film “Shooter” and Johnny Depp’s “Public Enemies.” He’s also had his songs appear in the television series “Justified,” “Crossing Jordan,” “Surface,” and “Luck.”
“Again, it’s all perception, but it helps pay the bills.” Taylor joked. “Hollywood likes anything weird, and I guess my music fits in their category. I can’t complain. Getting a song in a movie allows me to sit back and relax for a little bit. It pays more than album sales and touring, so it’s nice. But people say I am under the radar. I tell them there is no radar where I am, just broken bottles and garbage in the streets. I never got into music to be rich and famous. My music is not mainstream, and I am perfectly fine with that. That reminds me of a quote I read or someone told me: if you want to be Jesus you will be crucified.”
If there is any justice, ‘Fantasizing About Being Black’ will put Taylor on people’s radar and have the talented multi-instrumentalist living on easy street. ‘Fantasizing About Being Black’ is so timely and incredibly educational, better than any history lesson you were ever taught in your school days. The Civil Rights movement, hypocrisy of public officials, slavery, murder, even World War II is covered here, and it all boils down to freedom for all.
“I just tell little stories from my perspective. I am a black man in this country, and I’ve been around. I’ve seen what happened in the past, and I see it in the future. I hope my music will move people to at least think. As I sit here on January 20, I can’t help but think, yesterday was my last day of freedom.”
Feb 18 Destination Blues Festival Bloomsburg, PA
Feb 19-20 The Iridum New York, NY
Feb 24-25 Biscuits & Blues San Francisco, CA
Mar 10 Swallow Hill, Daniels Hall Denver, CO
Mar 20 Pan Piper Paris, France
Aug 17 Snowmass Concert Series Snowmass Village, CO