"To play the blues, do you have to be poor?" he asks. "I don't think so. I did lead a very privileged life. Outside of music, I've been a realtor, and I worked in a record store. Those would be my only jobs. I've always been a good guitar player, and that's what I like to do. It's not a job.
"You can talk about the baby child growing up with the rattlesnake down its throat, but if you go to their house, life is good," Turner continues. "Buddy Guy just gave his wife five million dollars, two houses and three Bentleys! He's the number-one blues man, and you know, he kept most of it. Muddy Waters had a good life -- after he stopped pickin' cotton and became a bluesman."
Turner's own introduction to the good life began in Havana in 1952, where he was born into what he describes as a "very matriarchal family" full of doctors and lawyers. By the time Fidel Castro's troops had overthrown Batista in 1959, Turner's grandmother had already moved the family to the northern suburbs of Chicago, where she eventually came to own roughly 20 percent of Evanston. But privileged or not, young Turner survived an intense religious upbringing.
"I'm kind of a messed-up person," he says, laughing. "A Cuban-American Catholic Seventh-Day Adventist, I went to church from Wednesday through Sunday. I kind of figured at an early age, ŒI'm goin' to hell, so I'm gonna have as much fun as possible.'"
By age fifteen, Turner had already worn out two copies of Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced? He followed the Grateful Dead around, then discovered Paul Butterfield, Junior Wells, Miles Davis and other counterculture artists. After winning a graphic-design contest for a box company, Turner headed for Aspen. Later, in Boulder, he founded the Immortal Night Flames, a hard-core, suit-clad R&B trio that dabbled in punk. Through a stint in folk-rock outfit Mother Earth, Turner hooked up with Grammy nominee Tracy Nelson but was fired within six months. "Whenever I was out of a gig," he says, "I'd go back to college."
Turner gradually earned a sociology degree from the University of Colorado. While renting a house from Leon Russell and playing with the 4-Nikators ("a bad sex-soul band that did Elvis,'" he notes), Turner hooked up with Candy and David Givens of Denver's legendary Zephyr. "Everybody says I replaced Tommy Bolin, but I replaced Jock Bartley when he left to start Firefall," Turner recalls. "A lot of stuff I learned from Jock I still use today."
After Zephyr dissolved (Candy drowned in a hot tub soon after), Turner took an eleven-year hiatus from music and sold real estate. Coaxed by premier trumpeter Ron Miles to join the Electric Band in the mid-'90s, the guitarist re-emerged, older but wiser.
At the first mention of Otis Taylor, Turner's jaw tightens.
"I've known Otis since I was thirteen years old," he says of the Handy Award-winning bluesman who gave Turner the nickname "Devil Boy." "We've jammed on and off for fifteen years. He'd always come around with the 4-Nikators. He'd wait until the music was really hot, then jump on stage."
Thankfully, Taylor jumped down again -- and formed a scorching blues outfit with Turner and bassist Kenny Passarelli, who arranged and produced all five of the group's highly acclaimed discs. Turner believes that his best lead guitar work from those days is found on Blue Eyed Monster and Respect the Dead; some of the latter ended up on the soundtrack of the 2002 Billy Bob Thornton vehicle The Badge. Defiant, stark and hypnotic, Taylor's dark incantations of murder, lynchings and black sorcery can induce chills; they're made all the more eerie by the trio's sparse configuration.
"There was no room or time or money for a drummer," Turner recalls. "It was the baddest three-piece without a drummer in the world! It's like if you took early Cream without Ginger Baker -- but Ginger Baker's ghost was out there. Kenny invented a way of clicking the bass so that click represented the high hat and snare. Otis was like the bass drum. And I was like all the fills. It was all about me, live; I was the star. And if you don't keep up with me, it's my band. Otis hated that. He thought I was a threat, 'cause once we'd start, it was every man for himself. Jump in and hang on, motherfucker."
As if on cue, a sudden storm erupts, pounding the back yard with raindrops the size of silver dollars. In the shelter of the kitchen, Turner twists off the cap of a fresh bottle of Big House Red. "The Otis Taylor Band was originally a democracy," he continues. "But after the press came in, it became a dictatorship. After leaving, I had to completely reinvent myself. I didn't want anybody to say ŒYou sound like Otis.'"
Blues fans won't confuse the two on Rise, Turner's experimental solo debut for Toronto's NorthernBlues imprint. With Passarelli back in the control booth (he also plays bass, B-3 organ and pocket trumpet), Turner enlists drummer Mike Clark, who kicks off the album with a beat reminiscent of a funeral parade. "I was going for that Civil War marching vibe," Turner explains. "From death and destruction you go into battle, and then you rise. You get up, and you go back at it."
While perseverance plays a major theme on the record, so does sin, redemption and carnality. Along with covers of Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "Gangster of Love" and Freddie King's "Play It Cool," there's a minor-key treatment of "The Wind Cries Mary," which Turner hopes will put an end to the Hendrix comparisons once and for all. "They piss me off," he says. "Hendrix is the ultimate god."
A far superior guitarist than singer, Turner augments his limited vocal range with effects, making snippets of the Lord's Prayer sound as though they're being channeled through a CB radio, or dropping his voice to a whisper to enhance the formidable bite of his ax. In addition to an acoustic-slide-driven instrumental ("Resurrection"), Turner revives an old Zephyr tune ("Secrets"), featuring a cameo by vocalist Anna Givens, who also sings on the disc's title cut.
"When we finished, I asked Kenny, ŒDo you think the blues Nazis are gonna like this?' He said ŒFuck the blues Nazis,'" Turner recounts. "Honestly, I don't feel any responsibility to expand the genre whatsoever. My influences are so vast that I can go anywhere. I'm off the radar, and I don't mind staying there."
A recent East Coast tour exposed Turner's new material to purists and non-purists alike. But even though he sold out every venue, the bluesman hardly broke even. "I've done music long enough to be disgusted at what clubs pay," Turner notes. "My cleaning lady makes more than a working musician. That's why I sell real estate: I need to pay for the band."
For the Westword Music Showcase, Turner will gather Givens for rhythm guitar and backup vocals, bassist Jimmy Trujillo from Conjunto Colores, and drummer Dan Barnett. He's also flying Passarelli in from Santa Fe to play keyboards. "Kenny's got more gold records than anybody living in Colorado," Turner enthuses. "He's played with Elton John, Dan Fogelberg, Joe Walsh; he co-wrote ŒRocky Mountain Way.' I'm not gonna make that man drive a block."
With more studio time booked for July, Turner remains a busy cat -- whether he's test-driving new tunes or the latest California beaujolais.
"I just like the sound of an electric guitar," he concludes. "There's something about taking one note and holding it for eternity. It's like sex -- that really deep, nasty sound. It's Eddie music, and that's all there is to it."