“Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs”: An Interview with Otis Taylor

Otis Taylor
Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs

In blues circles, Otis Taylor is something of an outsider. The mixed-race musician, whose music plays a prominent role in Michael Mann’s new movie, Public Enemies, has an iconoclastic vision for his music. Put it this way: When was the last time you heard blues played on a banjo?

Taylor’s just-released Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs — his 10th album — also incorporates jazz, folk, rock, and African rhythms. Music historians may struggle to compartmentalize the Denver-based musician’s ouevre, but Taylor calls it “trance blues”.

“People say, ‘You can’t categorize Otis,’” says the 60-year-old, sitting next to the pool of a Los Angeles hotel. “The Blues Foundation says it has no category for me. So, my album’s never going to be nominated for blues albums. But it’s ok, because I won the Michael Mann award.”

The Denver-based musician clearly relishes the prize of exposure. “Ten Million Slaves”, a neck-and-neck canter of banjo and electric guitar, is selling well on iTunes due to its placement in the trailers for Public Enemies, a Johnny Depp biopic about Depression-era gangster John Dillinger. Taylor marvels that there’s even a YouTube video of a young teen playing along to the song on his acoustic guitar.

But, most of all, Taylor is grateful for the experience of working with a director renowned for enhancing visuals with rock songs ever since he created TV’s Miami Vice.

The two first met last summer when the director attended a Chicago blues festival and asked Taylor to act as music consultant and also compose temp pieces of music for the film. It’s not entirely foreign territory for the bluesman, a onetime fellow at the Sundance Institute’s Film Composer’s laboratory. Even so, he found himself in awe of Mann’s gift for marrying sound and vision.

“I never would have picked this one song that he picked for one scene,” says Taylor. “I said, ‘I guess I just got took to school, because I never would have seen that. I need to pay attention to this and listen and see if I can learn something.’”

Taylor is still a relative novice in the blues world. Just 15 years ago, he was an antiques dealer. His main hobby was coaching a highly-ranked amateur bicycling team. It was Kenny Passarelli, a bass player for the likes of Stephen Stills and Elton John, who encouraged Taylor to hone his talents.

“Kenny was a big client of mine in the antique business,” recalls Taylor, sheltering from the heat in one of the baseball caps that are a permanent fixture of his daily wardrobe. “Whenever I’d go sell him something, we’d always have to jam. That was part of the deal.”

Photo: Stacy Moore

Taylor’s musical gift isn’t just his facility on guitar, mandolin, and banjo. His voice, a gruff yet soulful instrument, vociferates with unique call-and-response phrasing that oscillates from ebb to riptide.

Even so, a music career wasn’t on Taylor’s mind. After all, a previous foray into professional musicianship hadn’t fared well. As a young man, Taylor clambered from one blues-based band to another — even linking up with Deep Purple’s Tommy Bolin at one point — but year after year of touring failed to yield a viable record deal. When Taylor reached the point of wanting to punch a bandmate in 1977, he knew it was time to quit.

For Taylor, the turning point in resuming a music career was a benefit gig for a local coffee house. The rapturous response proved to be the nudge he needed to cut an album.

“My wife said, ‘There’ll only be one record.’ Now there’s 10 records,” he grins.

The bluesman’s gentle sense of humor is initially surprising given that Taylor gives off a terse persona on his album covers. It’s not just his formidable bear frame. Most of his face is shrubbed in beard as dense as boxwood. A Gillette sponsorship is clearly out of the question. But Taylor’s most striking feature are unblinking pale blue eyes that could mesmerize a hypnotist. The title of Taylor’s debut album: Blue-Eyed Monster.

A good review in Playboy magazine for Taylor’s third album, White African, made others sit up and take notice. In truth, Taylor’s songs are hard to ignore. Over the course of successive albums he’s written songs about the lynching of his great grandfather, the gun-shot murder of his uncle, and his mother’s drug bust for selling heroin. Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs includes a song in which the “other woman” in a marriage turns out to be the wife’s lesbian lover. It’s about his mother.

“I want these stories to come out so my kids can never be blackmailed,” says Taylor, who is hardly a stereotypical bluesman. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and has been married for over two decades. “I come from a very avant garde family,” he states matter-of-factly.

Music was a large part of Taylor’s childhood. His parents were into bebop jazz; Taylor preferred roots-y fare. “My father didn’t like folk, country, or blues because that had to do with suppressed blacks,” says the songwriter. “He was intelligentsia. He didn’t like country people, because they stayed in the South and he got out.”

Nevertheless, Taylor initially gravitated toward the banjo — anything to get away from jazz. But one night at a party after a concert by The Dillards bluegrass band, someone noticed Taylor’s prowess on banjo and encouraged him to go to the South and play in a festival. The South was hardly a hospitable environment for a black man in the 1960s, so Taylor “freaked out” and started leaning more toward guitar and harmonica.

“Later, about 15 or 20 years ago, I discovered that banjo came from Africa, but I didn’t know that when I was a kid,” he says. “Which is really sad, because it probably would have changed my whole perspective.”

Warming to his theme, Taylor lays out a detailed history lesson about how whites took over minstrel shows and, with their black face makeovers, employed banjos and watermelons as racially stereotypical props. Such Jim Crow-era performances may explain why African-Americans began to abandon the banjo, though Taylor notes that different theories abound. The guitar, with its extra strings, may had more allure, he muses. The banjo’s original heritage was lost.

“Understand one thing about the banjo: Until the ’60s, the banjo was still linked with ignorant white country people — Appalachian hillbillies,” Taylor says emphatically. “There was still a heavy bad stereotype for the banjo. It was like, The Beverly Hillbillies.” (At this point, Taylor starts mimicking the plunking banjo of the show’s theme song.)

Photo: Stacy Moore

Taylor’s revelation about the black roots of the instrument inspired a passion project that took years to come to fruition. Using his growing influence as a musician, Taylor brought together blues luminaries such as Guy Davis, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Keb’ Mo’ for the 2008 album, Recapturing the Banjo.

“I was just wanted to show that black people don’t play the banjo like white people,“ explains Taylor. “We really have a distinct style. I wanted it to be modern and old.”

The record, which includes “Ten Million Slaves”, was met with critical plaudits and a well-received live dates. But it also put pressure on Taylor to deliver a worthy follow-up.

“After the banjo album, I knew there was going to be a lull if I didn’t watch out,” says the songwriter. “I thought, ‘If Otis Taylor does love songs, that’ll get their attention, because I’m so dark.’”

Nevertheless, the songwriter challenged himself to write happy tunes. Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs boasts a number of romantic songs and, appropriately, there’s much flirtatious interplay between Jason Moran’s piano and Ron Miles’s cornet. Taylor’s daughter, Cassie, contributes softly-cooed vocals and bass on “Sunday Morning”. British blues star Gary Moore, a frequent collaborator, plays tear-stained guitar on several ballads. Taylor’s voice is full of romantic yearning and he even let out a few chuckles on “Country Boy, Girl”.

But don’t go adding the album to your Valentine’s Day gift basket just yet. “Dagger By My Side” is about a man who murders his mistress, “I’m Not Mysterious” recounts Taylor’s childhood experience of an ill-fated crush on a white girl at age 8, and “Lost My Guitar” is a metaphorical lament about a musician who misses his deceased daughter. That song was inspired by the tragic 1974 car-accident of Emma K. Walsh, the young daughter of Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, in Boulder, Co. Taylor is friends with the girl’s mother.

“Whenever I drive by 9th and Spruce, I always go slow because I knew that her daughter died there,” he says. “Because people run that traffic light. It’s always affected my life, that spot.”

So much for the light-hearted album. “It’s just my nature,” rues Taylor. “I tried my hardest to keep it as light as possible but, every once in a while, I had to dig in that dark [area].”

Easy going and affable in person, Taylor is hardly an optimist. Despite the boost from Public Enemies and a rave review for Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs in the Los Angeles Times, Taylor compares his career to the stock market. “You’re either fighting to go up, or you’re fighting to keep from going down,” he concludes. “There is no solid ground.”

But, he adds, “When you’re unique, and there’s only one of you, you’re in a better position when things go bad because they can’t go replace that. But they can go get 10 more of these Chicago [blues] guys. So, I’m hoping in the long run, I’ll be stronger.”

In his nine years at the Christian Science Monitor, Stephen Humphries served as an arts writer as well as editor of the newspaper’s Arts section. He is currently a freelance writer in Los Angeles who also blogs at: www.stephenhumphries.blogspot.com