Expect the unexpected with Otis Taylor. While his music, an amalgamation of roots styles in their rawest form, discusses heavyweight issues like murder, homelessness, tyranny, and injustice, his personal style is lighthearted. “I’m good at dark, but I’m not a particularly unhappy person,” he says. “I’d just like to make enough money to buy a Porsche.”
Part of Taylor’s appeal is his contrasting character traits. But it is precisely this element of surprise that makes him one of the most compelling artists to emerge in recent years. In fact, Guitar Player magazine writes, “Otis Taylor is arguably the most relevant blues artist of our time.” Whether it’s his unique instrumentation (he fancies banjo and cello), or it’s the sudden sound of a female vocal, or a seemingly upbeat optimistic song takes a turn for the forlorn, what remains consistent is poignant storytelling based in truth and history. Taylor’s latest release, Contraband, was selected as the 2012 Blues Album of the Year by Downbeat Magazine.
Otis Mark Taylor was born in Chicago in 1948. After his uncle was shot to death, his family moved to Denver where an adolescent’s interest in blues and folk was cultivated. Both his parents were big music fans; “I was raised with jazz musicians,” Taylor relates. “My dad worked for the railroad and knew a lot of jazz people. He was a socialist and real bebopper.” His mother, Sarah, a tough as nails woman with liberal leanings, had a penchant for Etta James and Pat Boone.
Young Otis spent time at the Denver Folklore Center where he bought his first instrument, a banjo. He used to play it while riding his unicycle to high school. The Folklore Center was also the place where he first heard Mississippi John Hurt and country blues. He learned to play guitar and harmonica and by his mid-teens, he formed his first groups’ the Butterscotch Fire Department Blues Band and later the Otis Taylor Blues Band. He ventured overseas to London where he performed for a brief time until he returned to the U.S. in the late ’60s. His next project became the T&O Short Line with legendary Deep Purple singer/guitarist Tommy Bolin. Stints with the 4-Nikators and Zephyr followed before he decided to take a hiatus from the music business in 1977.
If Taylor ‘s first two recordings cast a spell on the music world, listeners were officially entranced by White African (2001, NorthernBlues Music), his most direct and personal statement about the experiences of African Americans. With this disc Taylor was officially blazing a trail. He earned four W.C. Handy nominations and won the award for “Best New Artist Debut.” White African was barely in record stores when he began writing the songs that would comprise Respect the Dead. Released in 2002, it made him a contender for two Handys in 2003; “Best Acoustic Artist” and “Contemporary Blues Album.” With the following record, Truth Is Not Fiction, Taylor took a decidedly electric, almost psychedelic path forging a sound which he describes as “trance-blues.” Music critics were indeed captivated as the disc received lavish praise from USA Today, New York Times, Washington Post, NPR and a nod from the Downbeat Critics Poll for “Blues Album of the Year.”
He quickly followed up Truth with Double V, which marked his entrance as a producer and a collaboration with his daughter Cassie, who sings and plays bass. The album scored him a Downbeat Critics Poll win for an unheard-of second consecutive year, while Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Blender, and CNN all gave their thumbs-up. But perhaps the most meaningful accolade came from Living Blues Reader’s Poll, which awarded Taylor (along with Etta James) with the “Best Blues Entertainer” title in 2004.
And if the brilliant songwriting and the haunting voice weren’t enough to turn the heads of audiences and critics alike, Taylor has also proven his instrumental chops with three Blues Music Awards nominations (2005, 2006 and 2012) for “Best Instrumentalist” in the banjo category.