Interview: Otis Taylor

by Dan Hack, Sr

Lightly edited for clarity and length. – Ed.

DH: Thank you from the city of Chicago, blues fest and Buddy Guy’s Legends. Thank you for sharing your time and talent with us. You have 13 studio albums, nominated over a dozen times; you received many awards from the Blues Music Awards, DownBeats Awards; you’re a musician but also a song writer and band leader. We’re going to get to know you a little bit better. Like the song says, you were really born in Chicago, then you moved out to Denver at a young age. How did you come to be a musician?

OT: I don’t know, I went to the Denver Folklore Center and saw all these banjos and just kind of got into it. I’m not a musician though.

DH: What are you?

Otis Taylor Live at Legends

Otis Taylor Live at Legends

OT: I’m a balladeer. I don’t read music, I’m not a musician. I’m an illusionist, I’m like a magician. I make the illusion of playing music. It’s one of the great illusions of the world that no one gives me credit for. Everybody thinks I’m playing music. Do you think I’m playing music?

[pullquote]influences are things that are outside of your culture. I can’t be influenced by black music, that’s my culture[/pullquote]

DH: (long pause) I see you playing musical instruments.

OT: There you go.

DH: Huh, cool. So early in your life did you have any musical influences, mentors?

OT: People at the Folklore Center. I mean, influences are things that are outside of your culture. I can’t be influenced by black music, that’s my culture. That’s like saying I’m a cook but I’m influenced by barbeque. That’d be ridiculous. You’re influenced by flamenco music, or Irish music, or bluegrass because that’s outside your culture, that’s influence. French cooks aren’t influenced by French cooking because it’s part of their culture.

DH Jr: Is that why you made the Respect The Dead record?

OT: I make records just to be making records. I made the banjo record for a certain reason; I made the [My] World Is Gone record for a certain reason, but all the other records were just making music. There was no, you know.

DH: Tell us the first instrument you played or the first tune you played?

Otis Taylor Band

OT: First thing was the banjo and song was Cripple Creek from the Pete Seeger book.

DH: Oh really?

OT: That’s what it was, white people taught me how to play music, not black people.

DH: In Denver at that time?

OT: Yeah, at the Folklore Center. Or how to play songs.

DH: When you play, do you typically have a specific instrument you really prefer most?

OT: I can get more things done with a guitar, but it has to do with traveling and convenience. I’ll play electric banjo tonight, maybe mandolin.

DH: Can you share any blues history or Chicago blues roots with our listeners?

OT: None, except for learning to play Hambones when I was a kid.

DH: What’s that?

OT: Hambones, the song.

DH: Oh, I got yah. There’s this word, “trance blues” that you’ve talked about a few times in interviews, can you define what that is for us?

OT: Trance blues is just like- Mali Music’s trance music. Voodoo music, it’s like the ultimate trance, American trance music, ‘cause it’s just drums. There’s no chord changes, it’s repetitive, and when you have something that’s repetitive it puts people in a trance, you lose your sense of time. Indian music, Ravi Shankar has no chord changes. You think it does but it doesn’t. I could play the song for five minutes or I could play for twenty minutes. People lose the sense of time.

DH: One time in your life, you left the music business and came back. What was that about?

OT: I was playing, then I stopped. I didn’t need the money, so I stopped. Some guys have to go play at the Holiday Inn to make ends meet, I didn’t have to do that. That’s how it was in the 60’s, you played at the Holiday Inn, or Carnival Cruise or something.

DH: Tell us about your newest release, My World Is Gone.

OT: Basically I collaborated with Mato Nanji, a Nakota Sioux from the band Indigenous. One day I was backstage with them at a Hendrix revival concert and he said, “my world is gone,” and that just blew me away. Because for Native Americans, their world is gone, you know? So I wrote a song about it that night and then I just decided to do an album half of which is about Native American issues.

DH: I had a note that your daughter Cassie is a musician, is she out there playing?

Cassie Taylor

OT: Yeah. There was some confusion- Steve Hecht at Piedmont died, so the tour’s not as strong right now, but it will pick back up.

DH: I know you’re known for having a trance blues festival, tell us a little about what that’s all about.

OT: We get like 60 people in a room and we get tuba players, djembe players, fiddles, violins, pianos and we have no chord changes so everybody can play. So it’s like a giant orchestra. And then we have a concert with, whoever I have the guest artists, we’ll have a concert upstairs and then we’ll invite the students to come be a part of the choir.

DH: To close out, favorite place to eat in Chicago? Chicago’s favorite food is the hot dog, right?

OT: Soon as we’re finished I’m walking towards the fountain to get my hot dog. You can’t get those hot dogs hardly! You can’t buy the Vienna beef [outside of Chicago], it’s like a mafia thing. You can go to Mustard’s Last Stand and that’s it. No, man! They’re not in the grocery stores, it’s some sort of mafia thing. They really have that control like a monopoly, where they have some deal where they tell distributers they can’t sell this stuff. Don’t laugh, it’s not funny. I don’t think you can buy Chicago hot dogs in the store.

Unknown Voice: Didn’t you jam with Muddy Waters or am I remembering that wrong?

OT: When I was a little kid but that has nothing to do with anything.

DH: How old were you then?

OT: About sixteen, at the Voters Club.

Dan Hack

Dan Hack

Dan Hack is a born n' raised South Side of Chicago guy. In fact he's still living in the same zip code as in his youth, when he discovered the album Electric Mud by Muddy Waters back in 1972, at age 13. He was electrified, and has been addicted to Chicago Blues ever since. He has been interviewing musicians and writing for BG:Blues and Music News since 2013.

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