Born in 1936, Ghanaian guitarist, composer, arranger, bandleader, and producer Ebo Taylor has been a vital presence in African music for more than half-a-century. During the early '60s, he was active in the influential highlife bands the Stargazers and the Broadway Dance Band whose singles were mainstays on national radio. In 1962 he took his Black Star Highlife Band to London and collaborated with other African musicians who were also in Britain at the time, including Fela Kuti. Back in Ghana, he worked as an influential producer, crafting recordings for Pat Thomas (his future collaborator) and C.K. Mann, among many others. During the '70s, his own musical projects combined traditional Ghanaian music with Afro-beat, jazz, and funk, creating a trademark sound as evidenced by the albums Ebo Taylor & the Pelikans (1976) and Twer Nyame (1978). In the '80s, albums such as Conflict Nkru! and Hitsville Re-Visited (co-billed to Thomas) by his Uhuru-Yenzu band delivered a rawer, more immediate sound. Over the next two decades, Taylor was a noted producer, arranger, and composer, working with Thomas, Mann, Gyedu-Blay Ambolley, Kofi Yankson, and dozens of others. He returned to performing live in the early 21st century after hip-hop producers began sampling his work. Soundways Records released the compilation Ghana Special. In 2010, Strut Records released Love and Death, his first internationally distributed album, followed by a series of catalog reissues and all-new recordings including 2018's Yen Ara.
Taylor was born in Ghana and grew up on the sounds of the wartime big bands. His father nudged him into music, by encouraging his son to learn to play the family organ. He caught the music bug and began studying guitar in school, coming under the sway of the emergent highlife movement. He would soon lead his first group, an eight-piece band named the Stargazers. In 1962, he departed his native Ghana for London to study at the London Eric Gilder School of Music. He explored jazz, funk, and soul alongside fellow student Fela Kuti and future Osibisa bandmembers Teddy Osei and Sol Amarfio. They indulged in endless jam sessions in jazz clubs off Oxford Street, after which Fela would often join Taylor in his flat in Willesden Junction. They would listen to jazz records for hours, analyzing the structure and chord progressions of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. During his time abroad, Taylor founded the Black Star Highlife Band, which showcased one of his greatest contributions to highlife: His jazz-inspired horn arrangements.
After returning to Ghana, Taylor became an in-house arranger and producer for labels like Essiebons, working with other leading Ghanaian stars including Mann and Thomas. He was paid to write for them, play guitar on sessions, and supervise recordings. From the '70s through the '80s, Taylor cut a host of his own solo albums that offered idiosyncratic but very popular fusions of traditional Ghanaian sounds, Afrobeat, jazz, soul, and funk on albums such as My Love and Music, Twer Nyame, and Me Kra Tsie. His single "Heaven" from this period stands among the most revered Ghanaian Afrobeat tunes of the era. Taylor formed Uhuru-Yenzu in 1980 and released the albums Conflict Nkru! Nsamanfo: People's Highlife, Vol. 1, and Hitsville Re-Visited (the latter co-billed to Thomas). After the album Pat Thomas & Ebo Taylor in 1984, the guitarist stopped recording and touring and focused instead on producing, arranging, and composing for dozens of other artists.
In 2008, Taylor met the Berlin-based musicians of the Berlin Afrobeat Academy, including saxophonist Ben Abarbanel-Wolff. A year later, Usher sampled "Heaven" for his hit "She Don’t Know" (feat. Ludacris). In 2010, Taylor teamed with Berlin Afrobeat Academy for Love and Death on Strut Records, his first internationally distributed album. It offered re-recordings of his highlife and Afrobeat hits. Its success prompted Strut to issue the stellar retrospective Life Stories: Highlife & Afrobeat Classics 1973-1980 in the spring of 2011. In 2012, a third Strut album, the deeply personal Appia Kwa Bridge, appeared and showed that at 76, Taylor was still intensely creative and forceful, mixing traditional Fante songs and chants with children's rhymes and personal matters into his own sharp vision of highlife.
That record marked the beginning of a popular renaissance for Taylor around the world. Early singles and other tracks appeared on several compilations over the next few years, and in 2015, his rarest album, Ebo Taylor & the Pelikans, got the grand reissue treatment. His early hit, the Ghana funk anthem "Come Along," made DJ playlists globally. In February 2016, at age 80, he opened the MOGO Festival's Nights with Music Greats. The gig proved to be a precursor for the deluxe reissue of his 1975 album, My Love and Music, on Mr. Bongo. In 2018, Taylor issued the album Yen Ara that saw him translating various strains of Fante music through contemporary Ghanaian highlife and experimenting with new rhythmic forms through horn-dominated compositions. At age 82, he supported it with a world tour. The following year, Mr. Bongo reissued Hitsville Re-Visited in May, while BBE Music released the Palaver album in September, that contained five unissued tracks from a (previously unknown) lost 1980 session.
© Thom Jurek /TiVo