Singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Otis Taylor is the next featured artist in our Saturday Soundtrack Black History Month tribute to musicians at the forefront of the work to reclaim the African American contributions to folk, old-time, country and roots music. I kicked off the series with my January tribute to Amythyst Kiah and then began it in earnest the last two weeks; first with a celebration of the music of Rhiannon Giddens, followed last week by Dom Flemons.
Otis Taylor was born in Chicago but moved to Denver early in life with his family. Taylor’s parents were jazz music fans. “My dad worked for the railroad and knew a lot of jazz people,” notes Taylor, while his mother “had a penchant for Etta James and Pat Boone.”
Their house in Colorado was near the Denver Folklore Center, where he bought his first instrument, a banjo. During a NPR Music Tiny Desk concert, Taylor tells how he broke a string on his mother’s ukulele and went to the Center to get it fixed. While there, he became entranced with the banjo, and “never left.” The staff at the folklore center saw this African-American kid from the poorer side of town and gave him free lessons. It wasn’t until much later—when he was, in fact, listening to NPR—that Taylor learned of the African roots of the instrument and became dedicated to bringing that part of the banjo’s past to life.
A music store, concert hall and instrument dealer, the Folklore Center was, “four blocks from my house, and every day after school I’d sit there and listen to records and play their instruments,” Taylor says in an interview in No Depression magazine. “It was a really wonderful experience, and my home away from home.”
As a teenager, Taylor use to play the banjo while riding his unicycle to high school, which melded his love of the instrument with his love of cycles. The Folklore Center was also the place where he first heard Mississippi John Hurt and country blues, and where he learned to play guitar and harmonica. By his mid-teens he had formed his first group and began to play around the country and overseas, including a stint in the T&O Short Line band with legendary Deep Purple singer/guitarist Tommy Bolin. Taylor took an almost two-decade hiatus from the music business in 1977, during which he established a successful career as an antiques dealer and also began coaching a professional bicycle team.
Taylor explains that his blues “is more closely related to African tribal rhythms, which don’t rely on chord changes.” The banjo’s droning fifth string also contributes sonically to his primal sound. The NPR Music Tiny Desk concert from 2011 highlights his mesmerizing banjo work, beginning with the haunting Ten Million Slaves.
The banjo’s history is even more complex than the one that has emerged in recent years through the exposure of millions of Americans to the music of groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The instrument did come to America from Africa, via the Caribbean, brought here by enslaved Africans. Not only the instrument, but string band music itself was appropriated from enslaved communities and spread into the greater American popular culture through minstrel shows and blackface performances. And the banjo was used for a variety of styles, not simply old-time and bluegrass string music.
Otis Taylor’s work on the banjo showcases these different influences as he has played his style of blues throughout a varied career on stage and on record. In 2008 he released an album entitled Recapturing The Banjo, in which he layers the instrument on a variety of songs and styles. No Depression suggests that “retools” might be a better word. The writer notes, “Recapturing The Banjo allows him to jump-start the historical continuum while relaxing—if that’s the word—with material that stands ready for recontextualization.” The Archives of African American Music and Culture suggests that the album’s “roster of musicians and their diverse contributions render the idea of a uniform ‘black’ way to play the banjo dead on arrival.”
His most recent recording, Fantasizing About Being Black,
“…is a stark and poetic lesson on the historical trauma of the African American experience, from the voyages of slave ships to the Mississippi Delta. Taylor simultaneously travels back in time while moving forward as a musical artist. Blending his unique songwriting and the compelling musical approach that he calls “trance blues,” the recording—on Taylor’s Trance Blues Festival label—inspires with stories of the enduring human spirit, letting its hypnotic sound as well as Taylor’s lyrics tell a story of continuing struggle.
The artist explains that his 15th album is about ‘the different levels of racism in the African American experience that are unfortunately still with us today. The history of African Americans is the history of America,’ Taylor says.”
Taylor also has one of the most beautiful and unique signature guitars I’ve ever seen, the Santa Cruz Otis Taylor model. As the company’s web site notes, “As a fine arts professional, Otis Taylor’s vision is a combination of vintage retro and ultra sharp European styling; this guitar looks like an expensive Italian suit from the 1930s.” I couldn’t agree more. The fact that the guitar doesn’t have frets above the 14th fret is because Taylor said, “I never play up there.” Here on video he puts the guitar through its paces, showing the various strengths of this instrument. Otis Taylor’s father, Otis Taylor Sr., was an artist and he signed his paintings with the distinctive OT logo, found near the guitar’s soundhole. Otis has said that “using that signature made the guitar feel even more special, more linked to his family, yet the very modern look is a beautiful complement to the whole instrument.”
Taylor’s website bio has a good summation of what makes him such an interesting musician.
“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.”
More to come…