Otis Taylor Tells of Journey From Ghetto to Voodoo

April 16 (Bloomberg) -- Otis Taylor has become one of those musicians who are too good to be famous -- but not good enough to be good and popular at the same time, like, for example, Jimi Hendrix. They are famous for not being famous.

His new album, ``Below The Fold'' (Telarc), continues his exploration of the universality of the blues, combining it with country music (banjos, fiddles), jazz (trumpeter Ron Miles), classical music (cellos), and African grooves.

One song is about an old man remembering how much he loved to play the mandolin when he was a boy; Taylor plays the mandolin. Another is about a man who has remorse for the way he treated his wife now that she has died, leaving him with children who won't even call him on Christmas Day. Another is about his mother's ``best friend'' moving in after his parents separated.

His music is down home and funky like you expect the blues to be. In addition there are provocative new textures and a sensitive, often startlingly personal, subject matter on top.

On an earlier album, ``White African'' (2001) he sings about the lynching of his grandfather. There is no argot, no bleepable word in his lyrics, which are about suffering, loss, love, and redemption. The urgent hoarse intelligence of his voice creeps up on you.

Voodoo Chile

Taylor is a sophisticated 21st-century version of the traditional West African oral historians called griots. With some irony, he calls it ``voodoo music.'' Actually, it might be called cool: The melodies are catchy, the lyrics universal. He's been compared with the Velvet Underground and John Lee Hooker, and described as a combination of Ali Farka Toure and Nick Cave.

His father moved to Chicago from Memphis at the age of 18 and never went back down south: he became a chauffeur and soon grew to dislike those who made money from other's hardship. Taylor grew up listening to the Dave Brubeck and Charlie Parker records of his father, who wanted him to go to art school. ``He was very upset when I began to play the blues,'' Taylor said, during an interview in his hotel near the Paris flea market.

Taylor said his father considered the blues ``country people's music,'' meaning black country people. Taylor Senior also called African Americans who stayed in the south ``country'' or ``stupid.'' He used to ask: ``Why would anyone choose to live under that kind of tyranny?'' Even worse, his son played banjo and ukulele, white country music instruments.

After the family moved to Colorado in the 1950s, one of young Otis's favorite neighborhood hangouts was the Denver Folklore Center, where he picked up his first banjo. He started his first band the ``Butterscotch Fire Department Blues Band'' at the age of 16.

Get Rich

Then there were tangents. Despite dropping out of high school, or perhaps because of it, he figured out a way to get rich quick by exploiting a window of business opportunity in the early 1970s -- importing art from Eskimos into Britain, and exporting its Rolls-Royce cars.

``My not going to college absolutely destroyed my father,'' he said. For two decades, Otis ran a successful antiques dealership in Boulder, Colorado, where he still lives with his wife and their two daughters.

By the time he was 25, he had become ``richer than my father.'' He bought a big house with a long driveway and a nice garden, and he ``began to make money from real estate, not drugs. I'm one of those got-out-of-the-ghetto stories.'' He coached an amateur bicycle racing team, which included black riders, before coming back to music in the mid 1990s.

Senior Moment

Now 59, he is a busy, productive singer, composer, and bandleader; his six CDs have sold well if not massively, and he has won his share of awards.

Not long ago, he had what he calls a ``senior moment.'' He told the audience the same anecdote after both sets at the same concert. When it was pointed out to him, he thought: ``At least I didn't play the same song twice.'' He figures he's got maybe ten years remaining before he starts forgetting his lyrics.

Meanwhile, famous unfamousness feeds on itself. He performs one of his songs on the soundtrack of Antoine Fuqua's new film ``Shooter,'' though only as a kind of P.S. behind the end credits. He is nominated, but only in the banjo category, for a prize at the Blues Music Awards in Memphis on May 10th. In May and June, he will tour Britain, though only as an opening act for Gary Moore.

His next recording, currently in production, will be called ``Recapturing the Banjo,'' and will feature black guitarists such as Keb' Mo' and Corey Harris playing banjos.