By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
By Jena Ardell
By Mary Willson
By Bree Davies
By Tom Murphy
By Tom Murphy
By A.H. Goldstein
When Denver bluesman Otis Taylor first played the songs he wanted to include on his latest CD for Kenny Passarelli, his producer and bandmate, Passarelli was caught off guard by the dourness of the material. "He said, 'This is so dark,'" Taylor remembers. But for Taylor, softening the tone wasn't an option. "I said, 'Let's go dark right out of the chute. Let's not try to balance the dark with light. Let's just go dark, man. Let's just crucify them.'"
Taylor did precisely that, and after he'd preserved the tunes for posterity, he dubbed the result White African, irony intended. This move was both typical of Taylor (his previous disc is called When Negroes Walked the Earth) and typically uncompromising -- and since such qualities aren't often associated with contemporary blues acts these days, the odds that the recording would be the one to at last introduce him to a sizable national and international audience seemed slimmer than George W. Bush's victory margin in Florida.
But for reasons that have everything to do with Taylor's undeniable artistry, White African is set to become his most widely distributed CD to date. This month, NorthernBlues Music, a new, well-financed Canadian label that aims to challenge imprints such as Alligator for genre supremacy, is issuing the long-player north of the border, with U.S. distribution scheduled for March. In addition, Taylor can be heard on Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues: New Acoustic Recordings of Pre-War Blues Classics, a compilation put out by Shanachie Records late last year that features popular blues performers such as Alvin Youngblood Hart, John Hammond, Debbie Davies, Duke Robillard, Guy Davis and Denver-bred Corey Harris. (Taylor's contribution is a fresh twist on Charlie Patton's "Stone Pony.") And finally, Taylor recently completed a composition fellowship affiliated with Park City, Utah's Sundance Institute and spent much of the just-concluded Sundance Film Festival hobnobbing with moviemakers drawn to the Robert Redford-founded shindig. "Being associated with Sundance is a pretty big honor, one of the biggest bestowed on me so far," Taylor notes. "When they told me they wanted to invite me to the composers' lab, I said, 'Whoa. I feel like I just won the Miss America pageant.'"
His walk down the runway was a long time coming. Born in Chicago in 1948, Taylor moved with his family to Denver in the early '50s and was still a child when he began hanging out at the Denver Folklore Center, the de facto headquarters for Colorado's folk-music community. The first instrument he bought there was a ukulele, but he eventually graduated to more conventional axes, including guitar, banjo and harmonica, and by his mid-teens, he was playing them in his own groups -- first the Butterscotch Fire Department Blues Band and later the more simply monikered Otis Taylor Blues Band. In 1969 he moved to London to further his fantasies of musical conquest and inked a contract with the Blue Horizon label while there, but the deal never quite panned out. Upon his return to Colorado, he signed up with T&O Short Line, featuring a hot-shot guitarist named Tommy Bolin, regarded by many observers as the finest string-strangler ever to emerge from the local scene. Numerous high-profile gigs followed, most notably his membership in Zephyr and the 4-Nikators, which co-starred Eddie Turner, his current guitarist. "Eddie's great," Taylor says. "He was great then, and he's great now."
Despite the fine company Taylor was keeping, he subsequently soured on the rock-and-roll lifestyle, and in 1977 he turned his back on it entirely. He later became an antiques broker in Boulder, but although the job was steadier than its predecessor, with better hours, he could never quite shake the musical bug. During those times when he wasn't appraising armoires, he would often compose, play and sing for his own pleasure -- and, as always, it was the blues that pleased him most. "I consider myself a singer-songwriter," he says, "but blues is the type of music that I like to use to express myself."
He also maintained close friendships with performers such as Passarelli, a gifted bass player and keyboardist who spent the '70s and '80s touring and recording with some of the pop-music biz's larger names, including Joe Walsh (Passarelli co-wrote "Rocky Mountain Way"), Elton John, Hall & Oates, Dan Fogelberg, Stephen Stills, and Crosby, Stills and Nash before stepping out on his own on projects that plowed Latin, new-age and classical fields. "I've known Otis since I was sixteen years old," Passarelli says from his home in Santa Fe. "When he was an antiques dealer, I bought a lot of things from him, furniture and whatever, and we'd always get together and jam when I was in town."
One such occasion took place in the mid-'90s, when Passarelli invited Taylor to an impromptu session backing up visiting tennis star John McEnroe, who enjoys playing guitar when not concentrating on his other racket. Six months later, Taylor was asked to play at the opening of the Attic, a Boulder coffeehouse started by a friend of his. He immediately requested that Passarelli and Turner accompany him there, and the sound the three made together convinced them to keep the project going. The absence of drums, in particular, was unique, infusing the music with a free-floating, eerie quality that cohered perfectly with Taylor's often haunted songs. "Drummers hated us when they heard what we were doing," Passarelli says, "but then they heard us, and they were blown away. Later we did a couple of gigs with the drummer from Susan Tedeschi's band, but it just wasn't right. We were better without the drums."