Inducted: December 3rd, 2019

Otis Taylor

Otis Taylor grew up in Denver, but like the old blues song, he was born in Chicago, in 1948. His parents were both jazz fans. “My dad worked for the railroad and knew a lot of jazz people. He was a socialist and real bebopper,” Taylor recalls. His mother loved everything from Etta James to Pat Boone.

The first instrument that Taylor learned to play was the banjo, but he soon rejected it for its association with the racist American South.

Taylor would eventually return to the banjo upon discovering its African roots, however.

Like so many musicians in Denver, Taylor drew inspiration from time spent at the Denver Folklore Center founded by Harry Tuft, where he first heard Piedmont, Delta, country and Chicago blues artists such as Son House, Muddy Waters and Mississippi Fred McDowell. He learned to play guitar and harmonica, and, while still in his teens, he started a band called the Butterscotch Fire Department. Later, he formed the Otis Taylor Blues Band.

A brief sojourn in London in the late 1960s earned Taylor a contract with Blue Horizon Records. Disappointed that the label didn’t share his vision, he parted ways with Blue Horizon and returned to Boulder, where he played with various artists including Tommy Bolin, Zephyr and the Legendary 4-Nikators.

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photo credit by Jacqueline Collins for Westword

As the music and the business changed, Taylor turned away from public performances in 1977 and developed a thriving career as an expert in high-end antiques.

During the twenty years he was out of the mainstream music business, he also helped organize, coach and fund one of the first African-American bicycle racing teams, which eventually ranked fourth in the United States. In 1995, at the urging of Kenny Passarelli (the renowned bass player for Elton John and Joe Walsh’s Barnstorm who was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame presented by Comfort Dental in 2017), Taylor performed at the opening of Buchanan’s Coffee Pub on the Hill in Boulder, joined by Passarelli and former Zephyr guitarist Eddie Turner. Audience response was so strong that it served as a catalyst for Taylor’s return to recording and touring; he envisioned pushing the blues genre forward with fresh and original songwriting.

In 1996, Taylor released his first solo album, Blue-Eyed Monster, on Shoelace Music, produced by Passarelli. According to Taylor, “I developed a way of saying something that seemed to be more intense. You can definitely see how I was getting ready to go that way.” Passarelli also produced Taylor’s second record, When Negroes Walked the Earth, released in 1997. Taylor earned his first big break with a review in Playboy magazine by rock critic Dave Marsh, who described the music as “minimalist blues in the John Lee Hooker mode.”

Taylor’s vocal, guitar and songwriting talents were also recognized in 2000 with a coveted fellowship to the Sundance Composers Lab in Park City, Utah. Upon learning that he’d been selected, Taylor remarked, “I feel like I just won the Miss America pageant.” The fellowship would eventually help Taylor land music-sourcing contracts for a number of major Hollywood films and television shows.

In 2000, Taylor released his breakthrough album, White African, on the Canadian label NorthernBlues Music (it was again produced by Passarelli). Taylor’s songs confronted both his personal connection to the legacy of lynching in African-American history — his great-grandfather had been lynched — and other dark topics. Taylor shocked the blues world with a heartfelt vocal delivery that accentuated his writing’s exploration of race relations and social injustice. The album earned four W.C. Handy nominations, and he won the award for Best New Artist Debut.

Taylor’s next album, Respect the Dead, was released in 2002; it was recognized by the W.C. Handy Awards in 2003 with nominations for Best Acoustic Artist and Best Contemporary Blues Album.

The roots of the style that would become Taylor’s most recognizable contribution to blues can be found on Truth Is Not Fiction, released in 2003 on Telarc Records. Music critics were both enthralled and a bit mystified by Taylor’s signature “trance blues” electric, psychedelic style. Truth Is Not Fiction earned a Top 10 album of the year listing from the New York Times and also received rave reviews from USA Today, the Washington Post and NPR, as well as a Downbeat critics’ award for Blues Album of the Year.

Double V came out in 2004, and was the first of eleven records produced by Taylor. It also marked the increased presence of Taylor’s daughter, Cassie, who was featured on the cover and would become an integral part of his band on bass and vocals. The album won Taylor the Downbeat critics’ Blues Album of the Year award for the second year, and reviews from Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, Blender and CNN all helped to establish him as a rising and distinctive songwriter and producer in blues. That same year, the readers’ poll for Living Blues Magazine awarded both Taylor and blues icon Etta James Best Blues Entertainer honors.

Three years later, Taylor scored again when Downbeat named Definition of a Circle, featuring Gary Moore on lead guitar, as Blues CD of the Year for 2007.

Otis Taylor

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During these years, Taylor had learned about the African roots of the banjo and dreamed of a project that would highlight some of the most accomplished contemporary black banjo players. He connected with Keb’ Mo’, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Don Vappie, Guy Davis and Corey Harris for the groundbreaking 2008 CD Recapturing the Banjo, which honored the roots of the banjo and simultaneously took the instrument in a bold new direction. The following year, Downbeat critics named Recapturing the Banjo Blues CD of the Year. In 2009, Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs scored another win.

All told, Taylor has collected five coveted Downbeat awards over his career. Over the past ten years, he’s released five more celebrated albums and his music has been used on Hollywood films and foreign movie soundtracks, as well as by television shows including “Shooter” and “Public Enemies.”

Personal highlights of Taylor’s career include being an answer in the New York Times crossword puzzle in 2009, and being part of the inaugural exhibition of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016.

A resident of Boulder since 1967, Taylor gives back to his community through the annual Trance Blues Festival, where he invites a diverse cast of musicians as guest artists for an all-ages workshop and concert. He and his wife, Carol, created a blues-in-the-schools program called Writing the Blues, which Taylor has delivered around the world; it acknowledges the history of the blues, but also encourages original songwriting. “I start by talking about how everybody gets the blues, Taylor explains, “and it’s been amazing to see the powerful stories the students are willing to share.” His wife says: “It allows Otis to do his part in ensuring that the blues, with new and original voices, will continue to move forward in the next generation.”

Otis Taylor is a rare musician who brings such depth and honesty to his lyrics, as well as the passion of his voice to his music. The Colorado Music Hall of Fame presented by Comfort Dental is proud to induct Otis Taylor as part of the Class of 2019.

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