'Eighteen years ago, bluesman Otis Taylor, a longtime fixture at the Denver Folklore Center, walked away from his career as a professional musician with hardly a second thought. "I just quit, because I decided I didn't need that lifestyle," Taylor reminisces. "I tend to be the type of person that if I don't like something, I stop doing it. But I have never quit playing. I just played for myself. Some of the most enjoyable times in my life have been playing when I was just by myself. But, see, people confuse music with the music business. Playing music is not the same thing as playing music for money."
In the years since his retirement from the nightlife circuit, Taylor became a successful antique broker based in the Boulder area. But recently, the itch to get back into the music game in a more public way became too strong to ignore--and that's good news for blues lovers. Taylor has just released Blue Eyed Monster, an album on his own Shoelace Records/Music label that's easily among the purest, most enjoyable local blues discs of the year. Cut with bassist Kenny Passarelli, a New Mexico-based sideman-to-the-stars, and Eddie Turner, onetime lead guitarist for the Legendary 4-Nikators, Monster proves conclusively that Taylor's time out of the spotlight hasn't dulled his skills in the slightest.
To put it mildly, Taylor has modest expectations for the release. "You have no idea how obscure I am," he points out. "You like my music, but do you really have any idea of just how unknown I am?" He laughs before adding, "You're watching the birth of a baby here."
Actually, it's more of a rebirth. After all, Taylor's name is associated with several acts that linger in the memories of longtime Denverites, including Zephyr, the 4-Nikators and the T&O Shortline. One collaborator in this last project was, according to Taylor, "a sweet kid who I had met back in the folkie days when he was just fifteen. When we did our thing, he was just on the edge of becoming famous." His name, Taylor notes, was Tommy Bolin.
However, the current resurgence of interest in the late Bolin's work had nothing to do with sparking Taylor's comeback. Instead the credit goes to, of all people, tennis pro/tantrum-thrower John McEnroe.
"Kenny Passarelli was visiting his mother in Denver, and he called me up one day and said that John McEnroe was in town," Taylor recounts. "Kenny said he needed me to bring two amps, my guitar and my harps because we were going to jam. Kenny is my friend, so I said, 'Sure, Kenny,' and I went to Kenny's mother's house--and John McEnroe is there, too, because he's in town for some big tennis tournament. And, you know, he wants to be a rock-and-roll guitar player, and they're trying to put together some tour in Italy or something. So we jammed with him, and he was okay--but he was playing these Hendrix riffs and a lot of that Stevie Ray style, and he thought he was the hottest thing. But I was sitting there thinking, 'That ain't the roots. These kids just don't get it.'"
McEnroe subsequently left to compete in a tennis match, then returned to trade licks with Passarelli and Taylor until two in the morning. Looking back on the experience, Taylor says, "I think maybe I wanted to play with folks again. But it was still all subconscious. Kenny kept saying, 'You need to play again, man.' And I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, sure.'"
Music remained on the back burner for six months but returned to the fore when one of Taylor's friends decided to open a coffeehouse in Boulder in the same basement space that once housed a Sixties music venue, wryly dubbed the Attic. After Taylor agreed to play a show at the venue, he called Turner and Passarelli. And the combination clicked. "Kenny started playing, and it was like a sound I'd never heard before," Taylor reveals. "Eddie and Kenny had never played together before; I'd played with both of them, but this was their first time together. And the sound was really trippy.
"At first we thought it must just be the room--you know, the old stone basement, good acoustics," he goes on. "And there had really been some energy passing through that room at one time. Judy Collins had played there, and so had a bunch of other famous people. So we went back and played again, and we sounded the same. And by the third time we played there, I realized that it wasn't just the room. We thought, 'Nobody sounds like this. Man, we have got to do this.' And we did it."
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The trio took only three days to record Blue Eyed Monster, which makes its quality all the more remarkable. Turner and Passarelli sound superb, while Taylor demonstrates that he's been hiding a lot of good material at home. His vocals most often recall Richie Havens and John Lee Hooker, but when he's scatting, he's every bit as smooth and furious as the late Eddie Jefferson. In addition, he's a fine player whether he's using his harmonica, his guitar or a vintage fretless banjo that dates back to the 1870s.
Making Monster was such a kick that Taylor is hoping to get back into the recording studio before the year is out; he jokes that, with luck, the threesome will be able to finish a new CD in even fewer days than it took them last time around. As for his other goals, he says personal satisfaction is the most important. "The music business soured me when I was young," he concedes, "but now that I'm older, things are different. I control my own destiny. If I fail, I fail on my own. If it fails, it's me failing, not somebody else failing me. But if even one other person likes a part of the album, then I'd say I have succeeded. So many times we confuse financial failure with the real deal. It's ridiculous how we have such a hard time separating it.
"I can't say that we're great or anything, but we have a different sound and we're fairly tight, and what else can you do? You don't have to anguish over your art. Then you become an art victim. And that's one fantasy I don't have."
The Otis Taylor Band. 9 p.m. Thursday, September 12, Brendan's Pub, 1624 Market Street, 595-0609; 4 p.m. Friday, September 13, Twist & Shout, 300 E. Alameda, free, 722-1943; 8:30 p.m. Saturday, September 14, Laudisio Ristorante Italian, 2785 Iris Avenue, Boulder, $7, 442-1300.