Otis Taylor – Beyond the blues
Welch and Rawlings, raised in Los Angeles and Connecticut, respectively, and trained at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, offend certain purists who insist one must be born and raised in the Appalachian mountains, singing in these churches, learning from these elders to earn the right to play this music.
Like Welch and Rawlings, Taylor isn’t playing this music; he’s playing his music.
Otis Taylor was born in Chicago in 1948, at the dawn of the second golden age of blues. His credentials are somewhat more in order: An uncle, Andrew Bell, died playing Billy Lyons to an unknown assailant, shot in a craps game.
“He was a gangster, basically,” says Taylor. “He was running the streets. He was a badass. I guess he underestimated who was taking his money and got killed. My mother loved him dearly. That’s why my grandmother wanted never to raise kids in Chicago.”
And so his parents moved their family to Denver, today a new American fusion kind of city that has produced Hot Rize, the Subdudes, Sixteen Horsepower, and Otis Taylor. Kerouac’s postwar Denver reads like the wild west. Taylor’s experiences were, doubtless, somewhat different.
“My parents were be-boppers, y’know?” he says. “My father worked for the railroad, he was a Pullman [porter]. The Pullmans knew everything because every jazz musician who had money, every movie star, every mistress to every multimillionaire would be on the sleeping cars.
“My father never came home and discussed who he saw on the train. He brought sheets home, the Pullman sheets; we used them as drop cloths when we painted, and some coat hangers, but that’s all we knew about the railroad. Because that was like being in the CIA, that was the most confidential position you could have. Even [black] doctors didn’t have white clients.
“So my father knew everything that was going on in the world, in a sense. He saw everything, and he never talked about it. But if you needed something, the Pullman could get it for you. Whatever you needed. He was very private, hung out with the jazz guys. Those guys loved to see my father when he came by, you know?”
That job not only bestowed upon the elder Mr. Taylor a certain kind of status in his community, it placed him at the forefront of the early Civil Rights movement. The Pullmans — organized by A. Philip Randolph in 1925 into the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters — became one the most potent and best organized early voices for equality.
Randolph was a socialist, as was Otis Taylor’s father. “He used to tell me, ‘Don’t be impressed by rich people because they got rich off the poor.'” Otis Taylor Sr. later became a chauffeur for a wealthy family in San Francisco, and, in his 60s, a painter.
Even for a man given to writing brutally direct songs, “Mama’s Selling Heroin” (on Double V) is breathtaking. It features another of those taut figures that circle through Taylor’s songs, his banjo pulsing in time with daughter Cassie’s bass, her maturing voice (she’s all of 17 now) spiraling over his, which manages to alternate between the sad memories of an adult, the wild cackle of a user, and the agony of a child.
They are singing about Sarah Taylor, his mother, Cassie’s grandmother. The one-sentence liner note which accompanies each recorded song (“a decoder ring,” he calls them) makes that clear. It is as brave and painful a moment as Shaver’s “Blood Is Thicker Than Water”.
“My mother was a hustler,” Taylor says. “You could leave her in a room with $5 and she could figure out how to make $20 by the end of the day. My mother was not into heroin. Her brother-in-law was a jazz guy, and he was doing smack, and my mother thought she saw some opportunity. She got busted. She didn’t do smack, she was a heavy drinker.
“You have to understand, in the ’50s, how things were for black people. Nobody cared about what the blacks were doing. Black neighborhood, it’s the 1950s, who gives a shit? So she was just being an opportunist.”
Otis Taylor was 8 or 9 years old when his mother went away for that long year. “Some people don’t see that part of the story,” he says. “The word heroin has such mystique in the rock ‘n’ roll world that they just stop. But what it was is I didn’t have a mom for a year. I had a lot of explaining to do to people. I can’t remember what I said; I sure didn’t say she was in jail.”
And he didn’t record it until after Sarah Taylor died in 2002 (his 2003 album Truth Is Not Fiction is dedicated to her). She’d already fussed at him for a song about her mother, “Saint Martha’s Blues”, which appeared on White African. “That was my mother, she’s gone. I don’t much care about my brothers, what they think, so I wrote that song.”
Anyway, his street cred ought to be in order.
Except his resume will not reduce so easily. Otis Taylor’s homepage features a clipping from the December 10, 1964, edition of The Denver Post, a photograph and caption of the artist as a high school junior, riding a unicycle to school while practicing his banjo. He was, by then, a student at the Denver Folklore Center, where he encountered the music of Etta James and Mississippi John Hurt, and had a few words with Son House and Fred McDowell.