For Chip Taylor, becoming an Americana/contemporary Folk music legend has been a long, strange trip worthy of a Grateful Dead song.
In a telephone interview to mark the release of his latest album on Train Wreck Records, the topical New Songs of Freedom, he says he owes it all to Cincinnati's influential but long-vanished King Records.
"If it wasn't for King, I wouldn't be here," he says.
Taylor grew up as James Wesley Voight (his one older brother is actor Jon Voight; another, Barry, is a noted scientist) in Yonkers and the New York City area, the son of a professional golfer. He was born either in 1940, according to several published sources, or 1944, according to his Web site. Despite the urban upbringing, as a boy he loved listening to country music on a long-distance radio station out of Wheeling, WV. He began to think of a career in music, as well as one in golf.
After first forming a high-school trio, called Wes Voight and the Town and Country Brothers, he recorded Country-tinged songs to little success in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But with support from Chet Atkins, he turned to full time songwriting and penned such Rock & Roll classics as "Wild Thing," "Angel of the Morning," "I Can't Let Go," "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)," and "Anyway That You Want Me." In the 1970s, he had some success as a Country singer and (especially) songwriter. Then in the 1980s, he gave up music to pursue life as a professional gambler.
When Taylor returned to music in the early 1990s, he started recording solo, sometimes-political albums for small labels, becoming — as All Music Guide to Country puts it — "the philosopher of Country music, not to mention its social historian." Early this decade, he met the young singer/violinist Carrie Rodriguez at a South by Southwest confab in Austin. The irresistibly good-natured albums they made together, beginning in 2002, were unexpected Americana chart toppers.
With Rodriguez now signed to a major label, Taylor is once again pursuing a solo career. New Songs of Freedom, which includes the re-release of several songs from his obscure 2001 disc, Black and Blue America, combines songs and stories in a somewhat stream-of-consciousness fashion about American life and politics.
So how does King — that great Cincinnati-based post-war R&B label that was home to James Brown, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Little Willie John, Freddie King and others before fading from view after owner Syd Nathan's death in 1968 — figure into this? Way back in 1956, when Wes Voight and the Town and Country Brothers were shopping demos around New York, their guitarist Greg Gwardiak knocked on King's door. They didn't know anything about King, or if it would be interested in songs Taylor now describes as "speeded-up Ricky Nelson — but not as good."
The office was run by Henry Glover, a King vice-president and an African-American producer, arranger and songwriter who had helped the label develop some of its first R&B hits. Glover, who originally had been in Lucky Millinder's big band, brought its singer/saxophonist Bull Moose Jackson to King to record "I Love You, Yes I Do" — cited as the first R&B song to sell a million copies. He produced John's classic "Fever" and worked with Ballard, Wynonie Harris, Bill Doggett and many other King artists.
To Gwardiak's surprise, Glover loved the demos. Glover also liked Country music and also produced the Country acts of King's early years, like the Delmore Brothers, Moon Mullican and Cowboy Copas..
"Greg got on the phone first and said, 'Hey, Wes, I'm at King Records and Henry Glover wants to speak to you,' " Taylor recalls. "And then Henry got on the phone and said, 'Kid, you've got yourself a deal. We want you on the label. This is exactly what I'm looking for.' He didn't talk to me about it being Country, he talked to me about it being soulful."
Taylor — still Wes Voight at that point — never went to Cincinnati while on King. But he learned from Glover that label head and founder Nathan had big plans for him, possibly seeing him as a Rockabilly/Rock & Roll breakthrough for the label.
"(Nathan) had a young daughter and she liked me a lot," Taylor says.
Nathan told Glover to spare no expense recording Voight. That meant going for a more polished, professional sound than the Town and Country Brothers — Gwardiak and drummer Ted Daryll — could provide.
"I remember Henry telling me, 'Wes, I love the way these demos sound but Syd wants to make sure I get the best musicians for you I possibly can,' " Taylor says.
Top R&B session players Mickey Baker (guitar) and Panama Francis (drums) filled in on the recording sessions. Over the course of three years (1957-1959) Voight released two singles for King's DeLuxe label — "Another Guy's Line"/"Midnight Blues" and "I Want a Lover"/"Little Joan" — and two on King, proper, "I'm Moving In"/"Everything's the Same" and "I'm Ready to Go Steady"/"The Wind and the Coal Black Night."
Nothing much happened. Toward the end, King promotional people suggested the problem might be the name - "Voight" didn't sound showbiz enough. Eager to do anything to break through, he came up with an alternative: "Chip Taylor."
"My nickname was Chip from golfing," he says. "My short game was really good and in some big match I chipped a few in. So when somebody suggested changing my name I mentioned that. And 'Taylor' sounded solid."
He never actually released anything as "Chip Taylor" on King, but did for his next label, Warner Bros. In 1962 a song called "Here I Am" had just enough success — he was able to tour with Neil Sedaka — that he kept the name. Soon after, his songwriting career took off.
As varied and successful as Taylor's music-business experiences have been, he maintains a special respect for his years as a teenager on King Records.
"I'm still proud to have been on the label, and so proud it's in my background," he says. "The only thing I regret is not sticking it out longer, because they were such a bunch of great people."