I have written before about some bluesmen who eschew the standard stereotype of a drunk toothless man moaning about how his baby did him wrong. Otis Taylor is one such musician who doesn't fit that frame. He's not from Mississippi. He's from Colorado. In fact, in many ways his music doesn't fit the standard post-Hendrix or post-SRV framework. It's simultaneously modern while at the same time reaching back to very old traditional African-American blues, pre-blues and even African musical influences. Ironically although his music has had some commercial success, often appearing on film soundtracks, it sounds nothing at all like the more commercially successful blues or blues-rock music with which you may be more familiar.
Although Taylor has written his share of tunes about personal relationships that didn't quite work out, even there his songs generally aren't party tunes or music just to shake your tailfeather to. No his songs on that subject matter are about men and women (or same sex relationships) that couldn't get together because the man was lynched or the woman died of a disease or is a ghost or something far different from most of the lyrics you might think of as blues. In fact even calling him a blues artist is limiting and maybe even insulting. He's like Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, in that blues may inform much of what he does but he's not limited by blues. He has such an individual sound that he's immediately recognizable. Like Thompson, he's very good at writing dark depressing songs though he's keen to point out that he's a pretty positive guy. His song "Rosa Rosa", dedicated to Rosa Parks is something truly sublime. One of his relatives was lynched and he wrote songs about that. Much of his music is explicitly or implicitly about the violence and harm that humans inflict on each other.
Born in 1948, in his youth Taylor did play in more of a commercially recognizable blues-rock sound and rock style, working with Deep Purple and Cream producers and guitarists before getting disgusted with the music industry and dropping out to do different things, including but not limited to being an antique dealer and bicyclist coach. He returned to music relatively late in life.
|Father and Daughter|
Although originally he used another electric guitarist (Eddie Turner)to be his primary soloist, Taylor also calls upon violinists or cellists to perform solos, something extremely rare in modern blues, rock or pop music. And as a multi-instrumentalist, Taylor himself can provide some fascinating solos on harmonica, banjo, electric or acoustic guitar, and mandolin. Lately, he's been using drums. My favorite Otis Taylor song is "My Soul's in Louisiana". Taylor's daughter, Cassie, can often be found playing bass on some of his later releases. If you think you know all there is to know about blues or are just looking for new music you should check out his work. As Taylor has pointed out in interviews, in some respects he's only called a bluesman because he's black. You could just as accurately call him a folk or roots musician. He's still going strong.
My Soul's in Louisiana Ten Million Slaves (Live with Chuck Campbell)
Hey Joe(Live) Young Girl Down The Street Rosa Rosa Nobody Knows My Name
Resurrection Blues Black Witch Little Willie Mama's Selling Heroin Pretty Polly
Willie King was another man, who like Otis Taylor was redefining what blues sounded like. Whereas Taylor was doing this both sonically and lyrically and doing things far beyond the blues framework, King's music was much more sonically recognizable in the traditional blues sense. He was from Mississippi and spent much of his life in Alabama. He was also a former sharecropper and bootlegger. He knew hard times personally.
But lyrically King's music was far more explicit about racism and the struggles of black people than most blues was. This was because King was both a civil rights activist and amateur musicologist as well as a musician. His theory, based on both his own life struggles and talks with older musicians was that much of the older blues music, which talked about struggles between men and women, was actually coded resistance to the white racism of the time. Someone talking about going upside his woman's or her man's head would have been ignored while someone talking about mistreatment by white racists or capitalists would have come to the attention of the authorities, as happened to bluesman J.B. Lenoir, when he wrote politically explicit songs about Eisenhower, Alabama and Vietnam. Generally speaking it's always been much more more prudent for both your career and your income to write songs about women and sex than about politics and race.
But Willie King thought that the time had come to drop what he saw as unnecessary subterfuge and speak directly about the struggles of the black and poor against the rich and the racist. He also did a few relationship songs of course but a bit less than you might think. He named his band The Liberators just so you could not miss the points he was trying to make. To paraphrase that old Fat Albert line you could listen and dance to Willie King's music and if you weren't careful you just might learn something. And, whether the lyrics were political or not almost all of King's music was danceable. So if you're looking for long turgid solos as is common in much modern "blues" you won't find those here. His solos are generally precise and quickly get to the point before King drops back into the all important groove.
In my opinion King's best all around release was Freedom Creek. Virtually all of his best work can be found there. It's a live album which sees King calling upon such influences as Howling Wolf, Jimmy Reed and most obviously James Brown with James Brown's "Payback" modified into "Pickens County Payback" and a second singer on most songs responding to King's guttural gutbucket singing style. The guitar tone is loud but not in a bad way. It's right on the edge of breakup but is nowhere near as distorted as what's found in most rock music. It's got a lot of clarity. He's a preacher, a shaman, a prophet and a prosecuting attorney. Imagine a gruffer Bob Marley. King just didn't sing about fighting power and helping people. He practiced what he preached. He created and helped run a Rural Members Association which was both a social welfare agency and custodian of African American culture. It did such things as provide legal assistance and transportation for needy people as well as running classes in music, quilting, woodworking and plenty of other traditions. He also started the Freedom Creek blues festival. He's passed on but has left an impressive body of work.
Second Coming Uncle Tom Stand up and Speak The Truth Like it Like That Spoonful(Live)
Pickens Country Payback Terrorized I am The Blues Ride Sally Ride (Live)