Otis Taylor earned acclaim in 2001 when his White African release got picked up for national distribution, but this previous disc could just as easily have been the one to bring him into the spotlight: It was every bit as deep, ambitious, and listenable as White African. Listening to the independently issued When Negroes Walked the Earth reveals that Taylor was already one of the most fully developed voices in contemporary blues — an artist in the true sense of the word, intent on crafting his ideas into sharply realized songs and then into a full-fledged album. Everything seems purposeful; the skeletal arrangements lend emotional resonance to chilling songs like “500 Roses” and “12 String Mile,” and the remarkable variety in Taylor’s droning, single-chord structures rivals even that of John Lee Hooker. And lest anyone wonder whether a drumless trio can keep a groove, hearing album highlight “Cold at Midnight,” driven to the brink of oblivion by bassist Kenny Passarelli’s heartbeat pulse, should put all fears to rest. Taylor would return to many of the same lyrical themes later in his career — references to violence, death, and the paradoxes of African-American history are frequent — but When Negroes Walked the Earth covered these topics just as powerfully as his subsequent, more widely distributed work.
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