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Clip: Derk Richardson on Chip Taylor

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  • Carl Z.
    Gamblin Man How Wild Thing writer Chip Taylor got a second chance at being a singer/songwriter Derk Richardson,
    Message 1 of 2 , Aug 10, 2006
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      Gamblin' Man
      How 'Wild Thing' writer Chip Taylor got a second chance at being a

      Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate

      Thursday, August 10, 2006

      If Chip Taylor were a betting man, he probably wouldn't have put money
      on his chances for a comeback as a songwriter. In the glory days of
      the 1960s, Taylor composed such mega-hits as "Wild Thing," "Angel of
      the Morning" and "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)," first made famous
      by the Troggs, Merrilee Rush and Janis Joplin, respectively. Artists
      as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Juice Newton, Nina Simone, Linda Ronstadt,
      Ike and Tina Turner, the Hollies, Jackie DeShannon, Emmylou Harris,
      Bonnie Raitt and X have also recorded his songs. But after releasing
      several of his own albums in the 1970s, Taylor soured on the record
      industry and disappeared from view.

      But wait a minute: Taylor was a betting man. Indeed, for the 15 or so
      years he was absent from the music business -- from 1980 to the
      mid-1990s -- Taylor dedicated himself almost entirely (and with
      extraordinary success) to gambling. When he decided to give up gaming,
      it was because his original muse had been undeniably reanimated, and
      he has since re-emerged as a soulful, country-tinged
      singer-songwriter, standing shoulder to shoulder with such Americana
      icons as John Prine, Guy Clark and Lucinda Williams.

      "It's been wonderful being back and making music," said Taylor, who
      makes two Northern California stops next week -- at Studio E, in
      Sebastopol, Wed., Aug. 16, and the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, in
      Berkeley, Thurs., Aug. 17 -- on his current tour with singing partner
      and fiddler Carrie Rodriguez. "These are great days for me."

      Anyone who has heard Taylor's recent recordings, including three with
      Rodriguez -- 2002's Let's Leave This Town, 2003's The Trouble With
      Humans and last year's Red Dog Tracks -- and the brand-new solo double
      CD, Unglorious Hallelujah, would have to agree. Whether joined in a
      natural vocal blend by the classically trained Texas violinist
      Rodriguez (whose first solo CD, Seven Angels on a Bicycle, arrives in
      record stores next Tuesday) or roughing it on his own, Taylor sings
      the kind of flesh-and-blood stories that speak with depth and
      understanding to people's real lives and passions.

      And his journey from hit songwriter to full-time pro gambler to
      heartfelt country-folk singer-songwriter is as compelling a tale as
      any he has put to music.

      Taylor was born John Wesley Voight in Yonkers, N.Y., in 1944. There
      must have been some seed of genius in the Westchester County water or
      the Voight family genes: His older brothers are actor Jon Voight
      ("Midnight Cowboy," "Deliverance," "Coming Home") and geologist Barry
      Voight (who devised the widely used formula that predicts volcanic

      As a teenager, Wes Voight dialed into gospel and R&B on New York radio
      station WNEW and became enthralled with the old-time country sounds he
      could pick up late at night on WWVA out of Wheeling, W.Va. "I just
      loved the sadness of country music," he said in a recent phone
      conversation from his Manhattan residence. "I felt like that was where
      I wanted to be, and then I heard the 'race' records from down South
      and that influenced me as well."

      After he started writing songs for a band called the Town and Country
      Brothers, the group's guitarist, Greg Gwardiak, took demos to New York
      City and somehow landed a deal with King Records, whose roster
      included Little Willie John, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and
      James Brown. "Greg totally believed in us and my songs," Taylor
      recounted, "and he went down and made the rounds. One day he calls me
      up and tells me that Henry Glover [of King Records] says this is
      exactly what he's looking for. I was the only white artist on the

      The name "Wes Voight and the Town and Country Brothers" didn't last
      long. "The promotion people said they were having a hard time
      pronouncing my name," Taylor recounted, "and they asked if there was a
      name we could use that was a little more of the era." "Chip" was
      Voight's golfing nickname and "Taylor" was a solid, all-purpose
      surname. "I didn't get much airplay and the records weren't very
      good," Taylor recalled. "The playing was great -- they brought in
      [guitarist] Mickey Baker and [drummer] Panama Francis -- but I was

      In 1961, after the Town and Country Brothers disbanded and he briefly
      tried his hand as a professional golfer, Taylor signed a recording
      contract with Warner Bros. and released the single "Here I Am." Three
      years later, he became one of the first songwriters signed to CBS's
      April-Blackwood Music.

      "It was a wonderful period of time, because it was like total
      anarchy," Taylor said. His mentors included composer Bobby Scott ("A
      Taste of Honey") and producer Quincy Jones; his songwriting peers
      included Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller
      and Ellie Greenwich; and his discoveries included Billy Vera and James

      "We were taking the business over, and we didn't want to play by the
      old rules," he explained. "Up until then, people would go into the
      studio and make their records with even the drum beats and bass notes
      written out in the charts. We didn't want any of that. We didn't want
      to use those kinds of orchestrations from the Broadway era. We were
      changing it. Some were more 'pop' than I was -- I was more 'Memphis.'

      "The first time I remember getting really excited," Taylor continued,
      "was hearing 'Wild Thing' getting played on the radio. I loved that
      record. A lot of people don't know how great that record was. The
      Troggs were very punk and nasty in their approach. Jimi Hendrix went
      nuts when he heard that song. There are a lot of great recordings of
      that song, including Jimi's. The X version was great, too."

      It might be hard for some people to hear a common thread running from
      "Wild Thing" to Taylor's huge 1968 hit, the Merrilee Rush recording of
      "Angel of the Morning." But, he said, "I think there's a big
      connection with those songs. To me, both those songs are sweaty,
      they're 'Memphis.' They're both 'me,' but the heart of them is very
      Southern. 'Angel of the Morning' is one of those great sweaty

      But not everything came up roses, sweaty or otherwise, in Taylor's
      music career. In the mid-1970s, he watched in dismay as a major record
      company pulled its support out from under Anne Murray's version of his
      "Son of a Rotten Gambler" just as it was about to explode on the
      charts. (The label was anxious to promote Murray's next album with a
      different single.) Similarly, his label decided to "teach me a
      lesson," he said, and didn't promote one of his own singles that had
      shown considerable promise.

      "I wasn't a very good artist for a record company," he admitted. "I
      never would have signed me back then, because I wasn't hitting the
      road and doing what an artist was supposed to do. Half of my life was
      based around gambling. I didn't want to leave New York and tour and
      play little places like all my heroes were doing. I wanted to stay
      around New York to be around the racetrack. Finally, around 1980, I
      said, 'This is too difficult,' and I just retired from music and went
      into gambling full time."

      As he had in songwriting, Taylor excelled at blackjack and horse-race
      handicapping. He was such a good card counter that the Atlantic City
      casinos banned him, and when he teamed up at the track with the
      legendary Ernie "The Wizard of Odds" Dahlman, Taylor reaped enormous
      rewards, especially at the "pick six" window.

      "I wrote a couple of songs with Billy Vera in the early '90s
      [including "Papa Come Quick," recorded by Bonnie Raitt on Luck of the
      Draw]," Taylor said, "But I basically gave up music. I had no calluses
      on my fingers."

      Things changed again when Taylor's mother took ill in 1995. "I started
      to sing for her," he said, "and I would get inspired to play for my
      kids and my ex-wife, and just out of the blue I said, 'That's it.' I
      called my gambling partner and said, 'You're not going to believe
      this, Ernie, but I've got this thing in me that I want to go play
      music for people. I'm stopping gambling.' I knew I could write songs
      and still gamble, but I couldn't play for people around the world and
      still gamble. I really loved gambling, and I was very good at it. I
      just knew I couldn't do both at the same time and treat my new
      ambition to play music for people with any respect."

      The songs came "flying out," Taylor recalled, starting with "Grandma's
      White LeBaron," which he wrote for his mom when she passed away, and
      the other songs on 1997's The Living Room Tapes. "All of a sudden I
      was writing again and I was back in the game."

      But the game is different for Taylor now. Instead of working for a
      publishing company that shops the songs out to singers or bands in
      need of material, Taylor is a full-fledged singer-songwriter in the
      tradition forged by Bob Dylan and James Taylor and carried forth by
      Guy Clark and John Prine (to name the two he sounds most like).

      Although he doesn't hang out with the alt-country and contemporary
      folk peers he name-checks in "What Would Townes Say About That," one
      of many standout tracks on Unglorious Hallelujah, Taylor clearly feels
      their influence and kinship. "When I came back to making music, I was
      listening to John Prine and Townes Van Zandt," he said. "I was getting
      inspired by listening to those guys and by getting to know Lucinda
      Williams, and seeing Steve Earle on tour once in a while, and Ray
      Wylie Hubbard."

      True to the singer-songwriter ethos, Taylor relies on his own
      pop-imperfect, comfortably lived-in voice (often sweetened by
      Rodriguez's angelic, Emmylou-like harmonies, and accompanied by the
      expressive fretwork of veteran-Van Morrison-guitarist guitarist John
      Platania) as the primary vehicle for his often introspective,
      frequently funny and sometimes politically pointed lyrics. "Back in
      the '60s, I loved the songs I was writing, like 'Wild Thing' or 'Angel
      of the Morning,' but I would never think of me singing them," he
      explained. "When I came back, the songs were more from my own
      experiences, and I felt like playing them. Now I just pick up the
      guitar and let it take me where it's taking me, and this is where it's
      taking me now."

      Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez perform Wed., Aug. 16, at Studio E,
      in Sebastopol, showtime 7:30 pm; tickets $20; for more information,
      call (707) 542-7143; also Thurs., Aug. 17, at the Freight & Salvage
      Coffeehouse, 1111 Addison St., Berkeley; for more information, call
      (510) 548-1761
    • rinderpeste1@iinet.net.au
      Thanks for posting this, Carl. Has anyone on the list seen Chip and Carrie in concert? One of the things I really enjoy about their music is what sounds like a
      Message 2 of 2 , Aug 11, 2006
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        Thanks for posting this, Carl.

        Has anyone on the list seen Chip and Carrie in concert? One of the things I
        really enjoy about their music is what sounds like a potent chemistry and
        warmth - does it come across in their live act?


        Quoting "Carl Z." <zimm28@...>:

        > <http://www.sfgate.com/columnists/derk/>
        > Gamblin' Man
        > How 'Wild Thing' writer Chip Taylor got a second chance at being a
        > singer/songwriter
        > Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate
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