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Blues musician Otis Taylor graduates high school 57 years after getting expelled

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's graduation season, and among those donning the cap and gown is Otis Taylor. He just received his diploma from Manual High School in Denver 57 years after the school expelled him.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Wow. Taylor, who is Black, is now a celebrated blues musician. Back in 1966, just a couple of months before he was set to graduate, the school told him to cut his hair, or they would kick him out.

OTIS TAYLOR: You know, I had, like, a little teeny afro, so they said I have to cut the sides of my hair. I said, I don't care. Goodbye. I wasn't going to go to college. I just wanted to play music, you know?

CHANG: And play music, he did.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: He's now recorded more than a dozen albums over a decadeslong career.

KELLY: As a kid, Taylor says he lived just a couple of blocks from a music shop and gathering place for folk musicians called the Denver Folklore Center. And one day, he took in his mother's broken ukulele to get it fixed.

TAYLOR: I just went inside this folk music store, and, psychologically, I never came out. They taught me for free how to play music, you know? It was really cool.

CHANG: Taylor says a diploma didn't matter much to him, but his parents did not share that view.

TAYLOR: My mother was mad. My father was livid. I don't think he ever forgave me for that - no matter how successful I got.

CHANG: Taylor says his father was also a jazz fan, and he didn't care much for Taylor's taste for the blues.

TAYLOR: He wanted me to be a jazz musician. He didn't want me to play the blues. He wanted me to go to college. And I just did everything he didn't want.

KELLY: Taylor first learned to play the banjo, and he cut an unusual figure around town. There's a picture of him in the Denver Post in 1964. He is 16, playing the banjo as he balances on top of a unicycle. The paper called him probably the only banjo-playing unicyclist in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF OTIS TAYLOR SONG, "RAN SO HARD THE SUN WENT DOWN")

CHANG: Taylor says he was surprised to learn decades later about the banjo's African origins.

TAYLOR: The first time I found out that banjo came from Africa, I asked my banjo teacher, why didn't you tell me this? I don't know. I just didn't think of it. It's like, wow, why wouldn't anybody tell me this?

CHANG: He's now gone on to record several albums celebrating the instrument's roots, including the one you're hearing now - "Recapturing The Banjo."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAN SO HARD THE SUN WENT DOWN")

TAYLOR: (Singing) Looked out the window and what did I see? Tar and feather coming after me...

KELLY: In the decades since Taylor was expelled, more than a dozen states have enacted laws that outlaw discrimination based on hair texture and style.

CHANG: As for Taylor getting his diploma at age 74, well, he says it was a surreal experience, and he has no regrets.

TAYLOR: Would you do it if you had the chance to do it over? H*** yes, I'd do it over again. You know, you can't dwell on all the bad things that happen to you - especially as a Black person. You know, you just have those moments, and I had a choice. It wasn't like they just kicked me out of school, and you can't come back. I had a choice. I was just a kid. You want to play music, you want to play music, you know?

KELLY: That is Otis Taylor, blues musician and now - drum roll - high school graduate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TAYLOR: (Singing) Hey. Hey. Yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.