Even before he picked up a guitar and learned to play the blues, Eddie Taylor Jr. knew he was different from his west-side peers. “I was an old-fashioned guy from the get-go,” he says. “I never could dance. I wanted to be a rapper, but I never could be one.”

Taylor’s guitarist father, who died on Christmas Day, 1985, was one of the architects of postwar electric blues, most famously as Jimmy Reed’s accompanist but also as a recording artist in his own right. Two of Taylor’s brothers, Larry and Tim, became blues drummers early on; his mother, Vera, who had often sung alongside her husband, maintained an on-again, off-again career as a vocalist until she died in 1999. Taylor, who was 13 when his father died, found himself suspended uneasily between a family legacy he knew but didn’t yet appreciate and a contemporary street culture he admired but couldn’t seem to fit into.

“First thing I heard was blues,” he says, remembering the music Eddie Sr. used to play around the house. “Old stuff–Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Son House, Robert Nighthawk. He used to have a reel-to-reel he used to play and record, work on his songs. Lots of musicians came around the house. I didn’t want to hear that type of stuff. I was embarrassed at everything: the clothes he wore–he used to wear them bell-bottoms and stuff–just, you know, like an image thing. During his life, I was into something else.” His dad bought him “some deejay stuff,” and he owned some drums.

After his father’s death, says Taylor, “something hit me; it’s like everything he had went to me.” He developed a style rooted in his father’s legacy: sparse lead phrases interspersed with chords that evoke the Delta tradition. For emotional intensity he lays angular melodic juxtapositions over standard 12-bar changes. “I never intentionally wanted to play; I never intended to sound like him. I just picked up a guitar, and it started coming to me.”

It came slowly. It took Taylor almost two years to learn how to tune his instrument, and that happened only because John Primer borrowed it one day and had to retune it to play it. No one except his mother–not his father’s contemporaries, not the younger bluesmen who’d come by to visit and play with his brothers–raised a hand to help him. “It was kinda hard. When everybody saw I was interested in playing, they thought it was a joke, you know?”

Fighting off humiliation, he began to sit in around town. In 1997 the Wolf label recruited him to record a tribute album to his father; the rough-hewn, emotional Lookin’ for Trouble also features Vera on one track. These days he works regularly. His confidence has grown, and he fronts his own band occasionally. But some nights he still feels like a stranger in his own hometown.

“They won’t accept it,” he says of the audience at the Starlite Lounge at Fifth and Pulaski, where he plays behind Jumping Willie Cobbs on Sunday nights. “They never showed no sign of appreciation. They think Tyrone Davis, Bobby Bland, and that type of stuff is the blues. It’s blues, but it just ain’t my type of blues.”

He doesn’t think much of what’s played on North Halsted either. “It’s all about who’s the fastest, who can bump the most strings. That don’t inspire me at all. And they don’t play natural guitar; they usin’ all these foot switches. You gotta play all foot switches, you ain’t no guitar player–you’s a cheater!

“I rarely go out [to hear music], because it’s basically no blues out here. But I don’t care what the next man do; I’m just going to be a young black male trying to keep the real roots and tradition alive.”

Earlier this year Taylor was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney failure. He went into the hospital on Father’s Day and stayed for two months. “Had seven operations. I was in intensive care for four days, on the life-support machine. I’ll never forget, the doctor sat next to me and told me I was gonna die. I had faith, and I was fighting to the end.”

His kidneys were saved, but he’s on dialysis. This Saturday, September 7, Rosa’s Lounge is having a benefit to help Taylor, who has no health insurance, cover his medical bills. Performers will include Taylor’s uncle, guitarist Jimmy Burns, along with Bob Stroger, Sugar Blue, Scott Dirks, Steve Cushing, and Ashword Gates. Admission is $15; the show starts at 9:30 PM at 3420 W. Armitage. Call 773-342-0452.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.