MORE

Bluer Than the Blues

Otis Taylor's new release, White African, is a dark affair -- but it shines a light on the Denver bluesman's gifts.
John Johnston

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."

The 1996 CD Blue Eyed Monster, produced by Passarelli for Taylor's own Shoelace Music company, proved that point even as it laid the groundwork for Taylor's spare but direct lyrical approach. "I don't use a lot of words to say what I need to say," he acknowledges. "I can't think on the Bob Dylan level, but I figure that if what I say hits people anyway, that's great. I think I have a talent to say maybe three or four words that paint the whole picture -- and someday I'd like to get to the point where I could do the same thing with just one word. Maybe 'Attica,' although I'm not sure that would work for everybody," he says, laughing.

Monster came close, and the acclaim it received set the stage for the next year's When Negroes Walked the Earth, a remarkable collection that earned an impressive amount of attention for a self-released platter, including a rave review in Playboy by big-name critic Dave Marsh. Before long, Taylor and his crew found themselves on the bills of renowned blues bashes across the continent, among them Arkansas's King Biscuit Blues Festival and the Chicago Blues Festival, and attracting the interest of numerous labels. Red House Records actually made an offer, but Taylor held out because of entreaties from Blue Note, which eventually failed to pull the trigger, as did Shanachie.

So Taylor prepared to usher White African into the marketplace himself, and he would have done so were it not for happenings prompted by his invitation to Bluesfest, an Ottawa event that's among the largest of its type in Canada. The festival's organizer, Mark Monahan, was acquainted with Fred Litwin, the man behind NorthernBlues, and urged Taylor to call him. After Taylor did so, he sent Litwin a pre-release copy of White African. "I put it in the CD player in my car when I was driving to Toronto," Litwin remembers, "and I just couldn't believe how good it was. I thought, this certainly must be one of the best blues CDs of the past year. It should win awards. Lots of awards."

The timing of this discovery was auspicious. Litwin, a former big wheel at Intel who left the high-tech world to create NorthernBlues, had already recruited his label's first act, the JW-Jones Blues Band, one of Canada's most popular practitioners of the trade, and would later reach an agreement with Rita Chiarelli, another favorite in his country. (NorthernBlues is also slated to release The Toronto Sessions, Vol. 1, by Archie Edwards, a veteran bluesman who died in 1998.) But Litwin wanted to let blues lovers and industry heavies know that he aims to make a splash in the States as well, and White African gave him a ready-made opportunity to do so. "What Otis does is really different," Litwin says. "He has these incredibly melodic rhythms that just stick with you, and he wraps them around lyrics that are very topical and really mean something."

Surprisingly enough, that's not mere hyperbole. A few White African ditties largely steer clear of tragedy and heartbreak, including the persuasive "Stick on You," about romantic obsession, and "Round and Round," a harmonica-fueled vamp that Taylor penned as a teenager. But they're surrounded by selections that deal with issues of race, class and justice (or lack thereof) in unflinching terms. "My Soul's in Louisiana" is (Taylor's words) "a ghost story" about a black hobo wrongly accused of killing a brakeman and an engineer that sports the crushing couplet "They didn't bother to hang me/They just shot me on the spot." "Lost My Horse" uses the title phrase as a metaphor for the appalling impact of alcoholism on far too many Native Americans. "Saint Martha Blues" is a horrific true-life talking blues about the death of Taylor's great-grandfather, who was not only lynched but physically ripped apart; his great-grandmother had to search for the pieces of his body, which had been deposited all over town, so he could be buried. "Hungry People," featuring ethereal background vocals by Taylor's fourteen-year-old daughter, Cassie, digs into the twin evils of poverty and undernourishment. And "3 Days and 3 Nights" is a heartrending lament, complete with sampled baby cries, about a father who can't afford health care for a suffering infant and is forced to stand by impotently imploring the heavens while the child slides toward death. Taylor remembers belting out this last number to members of the Campbell Brothers, a widely recognized touring gospel act, and having them tell him, "You can't be singing that stuff around us. We're trying to have a good day."

Reactions like this were a real concern for Passarelli, but he ultimately agreed with Taylor that attempting to make White African more accessible would unnecessarily dilute its power. Instead, he concentrated on constructing sonic environments that would make each track more evocative, and with the assistance of his fellows, he more than succeeded. The technical skills of Turner, Passarelli and Taylor, who plays guitar, banjo, harmonica and mandolin, never devolve into anything resembling slickness, and Taylor's singing is richer and more impassioned than ever before. "He's not trying to be commercial," Passarelli says. "He's true to himself, and I think in the long run, it's really going to pay off."

There's plenty of reason for optimism. On February 21, Taylor, joined by the JW-Jones Band and Rita Chiarelli, shares a Toronto stage for the NorthernBlues launch party, and he's already been invited to a slew of prestigious festivals, Santa Fe's annual Thirsty Ear soiree among them, with more expected to confirm soon. And documentary filmmaker Janet Russo is exploring the possibility of making a film about "Writing the Blues," a program that Taylor puts on at schools to teach youngsters about the blues. As part of the assemblies, which Taylor has offered in Denver, Los Angeles and Chicago, students are encouraged to write lyrics in the blues style and perform them on stage with him. "I always warn the teachers that it can get a little manic, because the kids get so excited," Taylor says. "One time we had 350 kids in an auditorium, and when I asked them who wants to sing, 250 of them stood up. They have to come up and tell what makes them sad, and I've heard some incredible stuff, some beautiful stuff, some heavy stuff. A lot of possible song material."

Not that Taylor is at a loss for subject matter. "I think there's an endless amount of things to write about if you just write about what's really going on with you or your people or your country," he says. And while he's encouraged that a handful of younger performers, including Harris and Hart, are penning tunes in the blues idiom that aren't just mimeographs of those made by their elders, he'd like more to follow suit. "I'd hate to see the blues end up like polka," he says, "but some people try to protect it too much. Some of these people idolize Robert Johnson, and they want to do everything like Robert Johnson did. But Robert Johnson didn't idolize anybody. He just wanted to be Robert Johnson, and he was. And that's what people need to do. They need to be themselves, not somebody else."

In order to live these words, Taylor had to walk away from the security of a successful career that had long supported his family (specifically, wife Carol and daughters Cassie and Jae) in favor of a pursuit he'd quit in a moment of apparent good sense nearly two decades earlier. But thanks to his contract with NorthernBlues and a growing feeling that he's among the individuals whose work is keeping the blues alive, what might have seemed like a foolhardy capitulation to a midlife crisis at the time is starting to look a lot better now.

"I had to pay a price and be obscure and work hard for four years and not give up," he says. "I told myself, 'I'm not giving up,' and I didn't. I'm like a roach. I'm not going away."