Otis Taylor - guitar, banjo, vocals
With Otis Taylor, it’s best to expect the unexpected. 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.
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. Guitar Player proclaimed him “arguably the most relevant blues artist of our time,” while Billboard has called him “one of the most innovative, thought-provoking blues artists to emerge in the last 20 years.”
Whether it’s his unique instrumentation (he fancies banjo and cello), or 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.
Truth and history are at the heart of “Recapturing the Banjo,” Taylor’s fifth release on Telarc. Released in February 2008, the album explores the deepest roots of the banjo " an instrument that, despite its common associations with American folk and bluegrass, actually originated in Africa and made its way to the fledgling American colonies in the 1700s via the influx of African slaves. Entertaining and enlightening at the same time, “Recapturing the Banjo” includes performances by some of the most accomplished African-American banjo players on the current roots music scene: Guy Davis, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb’ Mo’ and Don Vappie.
“Over the years, the instrument just lost touch with its roots,” says Taylor, who has proven his banjo chops with two consecutive Blues Music Awards nominations (2005 and 2006) for Best Instrumentalist in the banjo category. “I’m just trying to re-establish that connection.”
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 around 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. During this time he established a successful career as an antiques dealer and also began coaching an amateur bicycling team. But with much prodding from Kenny Passarelli and associates, the reluctant Taylor returned to music in 1995.