The beauty of what Otis Taylor does – whether musically or just in everyday conversation – is that he can make an equal impact with a rollicking 10-minute story or a single sentence. In short, when he talks (or sings), you’d better listen, or you might miss something. So when you ask him about his place in the murky waters of the business he calls home these days, he simply chuckles.
“The music business is a mystery,” Taylor said, but if that’s the case, consider him a modern day Sherlock Holmes, because few are better equipped to figure it out than the 66-year-old bluesman who brings his form of Trance Blues to the Iridium in NYC Tuesday night.
Celebrating the release of his 14th album, Hey Joe Opus / Red Meat on his own Trance Blues Festival label, Taylor is on top of his game, not just musically and vocally, but in terms of taking the chances too few are willing to these days.
“You’re sticking your neck out,” he said of the emotions surrounding a new record being unleashed on the world. “And this one’s a little different.”
It’s not a death metal / autotune kind of different, but the album is best described as a journey. There are instrumental interludes between tracks, a unique song selection, and the idea that you have to sit and listen to this one from start to finish.
“People decide what they want to think about it, whatever you do,” he said. “I don’t tell them what to think, but it is an album. That’s why I called it an opus. It’s an album of different misdirections, like if you get going in one place, all of a sudden you go in another place. It’s a thing of, sometimes people don’t know if they’re listening to “Hey Joe” or if they’re listening to me.”
Taylor’s life has been a series of misdirections, but again, it’s in a good way, like Barry Sanders running down the football field and making tacklers miss by sending them one way and going the other. For Chicago native Taylor, the biggest misdirection came in 1977 when he left the music business.
“I was done,” he said. “I swear to God I was done.”
He was content with his decision, going on to become an antique dealer and coach of a renowned pro bicycle team that produced two cyclists who made it onto the U.S. National team. And hey, if he was going to leave the world of music, he did so after a period in which he lived out every male musician’s fantasy. And get your mind out of the gutter, it’s not that kind of story, as he explains, telling the tale of when he was playing bass in a blues band that simply needed a place to rehearse.
“We go around to all the clubs and they tell us they’re booked up,” Taylor recalls. “We asked one place, what about a Monday? They said ‘We can’t do a Monday. That’s the strip night for the girls with male strippers.’ Well, we needed to rehearse in front of some people.”
And so they did, playing for a room full of women waiting to see a strip show.
“It was a trip,” he laughs. “We didn’t take our clothes off, but they went crazy. It was like the rock and roll dream to have 40 women in the front row. We had 150 going crazy. But it gave us a chance to rehearse and play in front of people. Then that band broke up and that’s when I quit music.”
Taylor went on to get married and start a family, and as he points out, “I always had music, I just wasn’t in the music business.”
His wife Carol didn’t know of his past life, even as he taught his daughter Cassie the piano.
“I was just doing bicycle racing stuff when I met her, and sometimes these musicians would call me up, like Kenny Passarelli,” Taylor said. “She just didn’t put it all together because I didn’t talk about it. When you leave something you don’t talk about it. I taught my daughter and she would play the piano and my wife couldn’t tell who was playing, me or Cassie. She was seven years old and I wasn’t very good so it didn’t take her very long to pass me (Laughs), but the point was, I always had a piano in my living room.”
And when the main sponsor of his bicycle team hit hard times and went bankrupt, Taylor stepped up for the sponsor’s new endeavor – the opening of a coffee house.
“He talked to me about getting a PA system,” Taylor said. “I said I’m gonna call some old friends and we’re gonna play for you and help you get it going.”
The snowball kept rolling from there, with Passarelli telling Taylor that they should do a record.
“I had never done a record,” Taylor said. “I thought I should do something so my kids will know I used to do this. My wife said there’d never be a second album, and I just finished my 14th.
“And I’m still married by the way.”
The couple have two daughters, and what Taylor called “unfinished business” with the music business has taken on a life of its own over the last 19 years. He probably couldn’t have predicted it, and he won’t attempt to predict the next 19 years, but suffice to say, you’ll want to hear what happens.
“I’m an incredible storyteller, and if people want to hear the story, they’ll hear it,” he said. “But I don’t want to think of myself as some kind of spiritual leader or anything.”
Then he laughs that Otis Taylor laugh.
Otis Taylor plays The Iridium in NYC on Tuesday, May 12. For tickets, click here