The hit singer-songwriter gave a taste of his new musical memoir A Yonkers Story—Chip Taylor: From The “Real Thing,” to “Wild Thing,” to “Angel Of The Morning”—A Life In Song, which traces his life in both story and song.
“It’s not too much different than shows I’ve done in the past, except that it puts events in chronological order and accompanies them with songs,” says Taylor. “So it’s more like a story.”
It’s the story of a kid from the New York City suburbs—the brother of award-winning actor Jon Voight and pioneering volcanologist Barry Voight--who started the only country-western band in the vicinity and signed with leading R&B label King Records while still a teenager.
“It starts with what it was like in Yonkers growing up with my brothers,” says Taylor, who was known back than as James Wesley Voight.
“It traces how Jon and I went to the movie theater, where we saw the absolute start of rock ‘n’ roll—Blackboard Jungle.”
That 1955 movie, which starred Glenn Ford as a teacher in an inner city high school, featured Bill Haley & His Comets’ historic rock ‘n’ roll classic “Rock Around The Clock.”
“It had been forced off the charts when it was released initially, because people thought Haley was black and it was a ‘race record,’” says Taylor, using the classification then given for singles that were released and programmed to the African-American marketplace.
“But when it was played in the movie, everything changed,” he continues. “The movie played around the country and went to No. 1, and there was so much excitement that went along with it. ‘Rock Around The Clock’ came back and went to No. 1 on the pop charts--after first topping the R&B charts and only denting the pop charts. And we were there!”
Taylor relates all this in A Yonkers Story.
“I saw all this energy from the kids in the theater that day and said, ‘Jon. They can’t stop this now.’ A Yonkers Story takes me back to that period of time.”
He recalls playing violin back then.
“My brothers didn’t like the screeching and asked my parents to stop me, so they got me a ukulele for Christmas and I changed to uke and didn’t bother my brothers any more,” he says. “That led to me playing guitar and being in a country band and signing with King Records and first recording with them—and getting my first advance as a songwriter when I couldn’t make it as a singer.”
Taylor couldn’t make it as a pro golfer either, which he was briefly before “trying desperately to publish a song.”
“It was difficult to get an appointment, and I was turned down three times by secretaries and then just went and waited until one publisher came out in the afternoon,” recalls Taylor. “He published ‘A Little Bit Later On Down The Line,’ which was a country hit in 1968 for Bobby Bare. I was so excited that on the elevator down, he handed me a piece of paper and said, ‘Let me give you a little bit of advice: Any time you get a song published, don’t leave the office without one of these.’ It was an advance check for $30! I thought if I could write five songs a week, I could make it.”
Taylor quickly scored cuts with other country artists including Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Eddy Arnold, John D. Loudermilk, Willie Nelson and The Browns before joining forces with top session guitarist Al Gorgoni (“he played on all my demos”) and co-writing The Hollies’ hit “I Can’t Let Go” (later a hit for Linda Ronstadt).
“All of a sudden I’m writing for artists other than country,” says Taylor, citing, of course, his huge Troggs—and later Jimi Hendrix—hit “Wild Thing” and Merrilee Rush’s (and later Juice Newton’s) hit “Angel Of The Morning.”
“Then my gambling thing took everything away,” he says, signaling a gambling addiction that nevertheless got him banned in Atlantic City casinos for his success at blackjack and his renowned skill at handicapping horse races.
“Meyer Lansky was my bookie all those days,” he says, referring to the infamous mob financier. “I was a great customer.”
All these stories, and the ones behind “Wild Thing” and “Angel Of The Morning”—“and there are definitely stories behind them”--are told in A Yonkers Story, "The Real Thing" in the show's full title referring to George Strait's 2001Taylor-penned hit. Taylor has already performed the show during a recent 12-city tour of Holland—“probably my most successful tour.”
“It’s like Jersey Boys—and now Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” says Taylor. “She was my favorite writer, and we used to see each other in the elevator in the [Midtown Manhattan songwriters haven] Brill Building all the time. These shows and my story are set in the same time when youth was taking over.”
It was a time of “total anarchy,” he says, “in the late ‘50s when nobody wanted to hear the kind of blues and country music we brought in with us. And it was so much fun because we were all friends and rooting for each other, and suddenly our songs were being made into recordings by cool and passionate people who were taking over the music business.”
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