Chip Taylor followed an unorthodox path to late-career musical success. Though born and raised in tony Westchester County, he began his career in his late teens by writing country music hits for the likes of Chet Atkins, then turned his hand to rock & roll (“Wild Thing”) and pop music (“Angel of the Morning”) before giving it all up to be a professional gambler, only to return to music as a performer, as a forerunner of the outlaw country backlash against Nashville’s cookie-cutter hit machine. Now, nearing 80, he’s still making music, more vital and raw than any he’s made before (such as “Fuck All the Perfect People” and his amazing cover of Regina Spektor’s “On The Radio”). Michael Shelley tries to get at the mystery of the man for PKM.
Chip Tayor is an interesting person.
Raised in a happy home in Westchester County, New York he was drawn to music at a young age by an almost mystical experience. Though he flirted with following in his father’s footsteps with a career as a professional golfer, he lucked into a recording contract while still a teen and started working his way up the music business ladder, always doing things his own way and with attention to his spiritual inner voice.
It was only after he gave up performing to concentrate on songwriting that he found mainstream success. In the 1960s, he would go on to write, or co-write, a string of hits including The Troggs’ #1 “Wild Thing,” a series of tunes for Evie Sands including the much covered “Angel Of The Morning” (a top ten hit for both Merrilee Rush and Juice Newton) and “I Can’t Let Go” (#1 for The Hollies in the U.K.), and build up a catalog of songs that would generate hundreds and hundreds of versions by a wide range of acts including Willie Nelson, Dusty Springfield, Janis Joplin, The Bobby Fuller Four, Emmylou Harris, Anne Murray and Ace Frehley.
When the 9 to 5 songwriting model started to dry up, Taylor drifted back into performing, but ultimately grew frustrated with the music business and eventually became a professional gambler. He’s quick to point out that these years were not some extended lost weekend, but happy and fruitful times.
In the mid 1990s, he felt the pull of writing and performing once again, and worked to find an audience in a music business that had changed significantly since he’d left it, establishing a new global audience.
At almost 80, Taylor is unusually prolific. In conversation he still sounds vital and spiritually connected and it’s clear that music is not a job or a burden, but something that called him long ago and haunts him, a mysterious thing inside himself that he needs to share.
PKM: You are 79 years old and your creative output does not seem to be slowing down. Tell me about songwriting. Is it a compulsion, is it therapeutic, is it work, is it inspiration?
Chip Taylor: When I write, it is certainly therapy and it is certainly compulsive. When I gave up playing the horses, which most people would call an addiction, and it might have been, but I was very good at it, when I gave it up and went back to music, I just threw away one addiction and went right back to another one.
PKM: What’s the writing process?
Chip Taylor: The typical way I write, I just have a guitar sitting here in my living room, the same one for many many years, a Gibson B25, and I just love the sound of it, and I just pick it up sometimes and not think about anything particular, and just strum it and see if something comes. I try to keep my brain as far away from music as possible, so if I pick up the guitar and just start humming and all of a sudden something might come out. A lot of things come out that that don’t mean anything and I just keep going, and I don’t mean from a brain or lyric point of view, I mean it doesn’t mean anything to the spirit. Then all of a sudden something will come out and I’ll get a little chill, and I’ve always been moved by my chills, physical chills.
I’ll give you an example. One day Mom and Dad had no babysitter and forced me to go to a play, “My Wild Irish Rose,” in New York. I fought it all the way, but they forced me. I remember I sat in the fourth row and as I listened to the orchestra play I got such a chill. It wasn’t the songs, they were nice, but just listening to the orchestra and the spirit of it, and when it was over I had such a chill in my body, and I didn’t want the chill to go away, it felt so good. So when I got to the car to go home from New York to Westchester County I sat in the back and made believe I was asleep because I didn’t want them to talk to me, and lose that chill, and I felt right then that I wanted this all the time.
“Before getting into horses I was a card counter in blackjack, banned from every casino in Atlantic City.
I liked winning.”
PKM: Was there music in your house growing up?
Chip Taylor: There was a Motorola radio in the hallway. My mom and dad knew I loved music and let me do whatever I wanted with the radio. One day I heard Wheeling, West Virginia and country music, and I thought “Holy shit,” and I got the same chill, and that was it for me. Country music was everything. I started a country band in high school and nobody knew what I was talking about, some kid from Mount Vernon, but we formed a little band, The Town & Country Brothers, and played in Irish bars. Then I started writing country songs for the band. So when I pick up the guitar now, I’m looking for that same little feeling that gives me a chill.
PKM: So how did you get your first record deal?
Chip Taylor: This little country rockabilly band I was in had made some demos and we sent them around to all these little labels, this would have been around 1958, and we would get the same standard letter back saying “Thank you, but no thank you. Try again if you’d like.” Or “Not for us.” Our guitar player Greg Gwardiak was so angry that we were turned down, he just took the demos and walked by himself from record label to record label. Most people just turned him down or said “Leave something.” But when he went to King Records, the door was open to Henry Glover’s office, and Henry said “Hey son, come on in here let’s see what you got.” Why he did that I don’t know, but he played the demo and he said, “Who’s singing that song?” and Greg said, “That’s Wes Voight,” that was my name back then. Then Henry said, “And who wrote that song?” and Greg said, “Wes did.” So Henry called me on the phone and said, “You don’t know me, my name is Henry Glover and I’m sitting here with your friend Greg. He just played me your demo and I just want you to know something. From this day forward you and the boys are King Records recording artists.” So we ended up on King. We didn’t have any hits, but it was a start.
PKM: Why did you become Chip Taylor?
Chip Taylor: Some of the radio stations were having a hard time pronouncing my name, and I had the nickname Chip because of golfing, some of the pros were calling me Chip, so we changed my name to Chip Taylor.
PKM: After putting a bunch of singles out on different labels you mostly stopped performing and transitioned into being a songwriter. How did that happen?
Chip Taylor: After “Here I Am” came out on Warner Brothers (in 1962), I realized I couldn’t make any money. That record didn’t make me a penny and I went on a tour and didn’t make any money on the tour, so I decided I’d try to sell some of my songs to other artists. I asked if anybody knew a guitar player who could play gut string guitar, and somebody mentioned Al Gorgoni. He’s the guy who played the signature lick on “Brown Eyed Girl” and played electric guitar on “Sounds of Silence.” He was a session player and one of the most important in the city back in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, and I hired him for a session and he was great. From then on I had this little trio that I used for demos. I recorded four or five songs and one of them the publisher paid me $30 for, and sent it down to Chet Atkins in Nashville. Chet sent a note back saying, “I’m cutting that song you sent down. I never heard of Chip Taylor, and it’s hard for me to believe he’s from New York, but from now on I want to hear everything he writes.”
“Here I Am” by Chip Taylor 1962
So he cut that song with The Brown Family, cut one with Eddy Arnold, the next one with John Loudermilk, another one with The Brown Family, and it was somewhat of a hit, and here I was, in the business as a country songwriter, and every publisher wanted my songs. I signed a deal with April Blackwood, I think it was 1962 or 3, and from that point on I got a salary and didn’t have to worry about anything. I wasn’t thinking of singing myself, I was just so happy to be in that building.
PKM: Were you gambling at this point?
Chip Taylor: I was making one or two bets a day with my bookie, who was with Meyer Lansky’s operation. My runner’s name was George and I’d make my bets and then go about my business writing songs. My bookie would give me Christmas presents and a bottle of whiskey on my birthday, and finally said to George “You’re always here with a smile on your face, and you bring me presents, and I don’t get it. According to my records, I beat you 53 out of 56 weeks,” and he said “Our boss is not a dumb fellow. Since the third week you beat us, he called us into his office and said ‘Here’s what I want you to do. Anything that Chip bets, get together and bet 10 times as much and lay it off with the other bookies in town and at the racetrack.’” He said “Chip, you are one of our best customers.” I really felt “How can you have a better life than this?” I loved betting horses. I loved my family. In ’65, my son was born, and I loved coaching the teams and stuff like that. I had a full life. And I didn’t spend any time hanging out in the city with the music scene. When the day was over, I checked the paper to see if my horses won and got on the train and went home.
PKM: Which of those songs from that era was the shortest amount of time spent writing for the greatest return over your life.
Chip Taylor: Without question “Wild Thing.” I had written a couple of things other than country that were doing okay, and the rhythm and blues folks were starting to want my songs. One day I got a call from producer Gerry Granahan, I guess it was in 1963 maybe ‘64, and he said he had a group, The Wild Ones, looking for a song, and I had never had any rock-and-roll hits before that. So I hung up the phone, it was around 2:00, and I started chugging on the guitar and the chords of “Wild Thing” came out right away. I don’t even know why, it just came out. I knew I wanted to stop and say something, but I didn’t want to think about it too much, I just wanted to think about looking at a sexy girl and saying something to her, I hadn’t done that until I got to the studio and I asked the engineer to turn the lights out when I got there and put the thing in record, and every so often I just stopped and said something. The only part that was written before I got in the studio was the chorus, so the “Wild thing, I think I love you. But I want to know for sure,” that, with the silence, is the magic of the song. It didn’t become a hit immediately, but The Troggs heard it and cut it pretty much like the demo, and that was it.
PKM: Has the demo ever been released?
Chip Taylor: I have the demo. It’s never been released, some people have asked, but I don’t really want to release it. I don’t know what to do with the demos from that era. I might gift it somewhere.
Original Version of “Wild Thing” by Jordan Christopher & The Wild Ones (1965)
PKM: Tell me about “Angel Of The Morning.”
Chip Taylor: When I wrote “Angel Of The Morning,” it wasn’t thinking “I know I’m going to write about this or about that.” I sat there with a guitar and started playing chords like I usually do, this was in my writing space at 1650 Broadway, and nothing really was coming out of me that gave me that chill. Then maybe a half hour later, all of a sudden, the melody and the words of the first few lines came out and I thought “What the fuck is this?” I had such a chill, and tears in my eyes. It was beautiful. I thought “What is this?” and I played it again. Then the next line came out, and the rest of it just rolled out of me in 15 minutes, and it came from just that chill, that spark.
PKM: What was your attitude about the “assembly line” songwriting that was happening back then?
Chip Taylor: In the 1960s, I didn’t try to do what the other people in The Brill Building or 1650 Broadway were doing. The publishers would tell the songwriters “Bobby Vee needs a song in two weeks,” and they’d focus on Bobby Vee’s last hit and try to move it a little this way or that way and get something that fit him. I never thought like that.
PKM: Your next transition was back to being a solo artist, with a persona that was almost a precursor of Outlaw Country.
Chip Taylor: Increasingly there were a lot of singer-songwriters on the scene who weren’t looking for songs. So the day of the writer sitting in an office and writing songs for an artist was coming to a close, and that was okay with me because I kind of felt like making some music on my own again. Neil Bogart at Buddah Records offered Trade Martin and Al Gorgoni and me a deal and we made two albums together, but they had their own lives mostly making jingles, so the intent was not to tour. Then I made one solo album for Buddah, Gasoline, and it made a little bit of noise. So I was starting to pick up a little bit of following and then Warner Brothers signed me to a three-record deal and that’s when I put out Last Chance and that was country-ish, but more of a renegade country record. It was the time when Willie and Waylon we’re trying to get away from the cookie cutter stuff of Nashville. There were a wonderful bunch of people like Gram Parsons and Kris Kristofferson and John Prine trying to start a new direction, and I was part of that. So I went on a tour and great people came out to see the shows. John Lennon and Ricky Nelson came to see me at The Troubadour. But the country people never really wanted any of the renegade people to make it. So I built a following in Europe and I had a number one record in Europe.
PKM: So how did that phase come to an end?
Chip Taylor: I gave it up again when I had an album out on Capitol. The friction still existed for artists outside the Nashville thing, and Capitol had made a promise to me that they would promote something, and that didn’t happen and it was an awakening for me, and maybe I was getting a little stale. I just decided to go back to gambling. I had just met my partner Ernie Dahlman. I just stopped making records. I stopped making music and a few years later I was teaming up with Ernie and going out to Long Island every day to see him in Hauppauge, we had our own little room in the OTB shop there and we did great. Our families were close together. We went to Vegas together.
PKM: How many years did you make gambling your primary gig?
Chip Taylor: 1983 to 1995.
PKM: Were you making money the whole time?
Chip Taylor: I think I had one year where lost a little bit. Restraint was what I could do best. To be there every day and watch five races go by and not bet those five races waiting for the sixth race, or bet $20 when you’re waiting to bet $300 on your big bet, that’s hard to do. People say, “Did you have good times when you were doing your gambling?” and I really did. I loved every minute of it. It’s interesting, this was before computers and we were doing stuff with fractional intervals and bias on the tracks, information about shoeing and trainer changes… yeah, we had a lot of good years.
PKM: By then hundreds of people had covered your songs. During those years was there a lot of mailbox money coming in for you?
Chip Taylor: It’s always been good. I always had a cushion so I didn’t have to worry. But for me anything that had to do with gambling I wanted to make sure my ledger was on the plus side. Before getting into horses I was a card counter in blackjack, banned from every casino in Atlantic City. I liked winning. I liked knowing the count. But the card counting was never artistic to me, horse racing was more artistic. After they banned me I turned to horses.
PKM: What brought you back to music?
Chip Taylor: I started to play for my mother when she got ill. I wrote a song for her and then another one and I started thinking “What am I doing? I’d really rather be out playing for people. So I put a little album out, and it was good to be back. It took me a while to figure it out. I thought “Who would want Chip Taylor?” I never was an artist who sold a lot of records, so when I made the decision I was very fortunate in meeting some people who would stay behind me and help me forming a record company, and just going ahead.
Chip Taylor with Carrie Rodriguez:
PKM: When I listen to your last few albums, I’m always struck by how emotionally raw they are. The lyrics and the vocal performances are so revealing. You’re putting yourself and your vulnerability right out there. I assume when you play those songs live audiences must react very strongly to that.
Chip Taylor: I think so. My little army of fans like me for that, for having the emotion just right there. Often I can see my fans crying as I’m singing. Men, grown men, crying with me, we’re crying together. It’s a nice feeling, it’s a nice bond to have, and I’m very fortunate to have it.
PKM: The season closer of Netflix’s Sex Education features you singing a cover of a Regina Spektor song “On The Radio.” The way you approach the song and the rawness of your voice is arresting. Was their idea for you to do this track?
Chip Taylor: The director is a fan of mine and asked me if I would do it. He used a song of mine last season, “Fuck All The Perfect People,” which is the biggest song I’ve had in a while, and the switchboards just went crazy. So he called me and he said “There’s a song I want to use at the end of the season, and I’d like your voice on it. Will you give it a try?” So I did.
PKM: You are not really known for doing covers. Is it easy to wrap your mind around singing somebody else’s words?
Chip Taylor: It’s hard for me. I don’t particularly like singing other people’s songs. I like writing my own. When I’m expending energy I like to be filling it with whatever my spirit is giving me. I don’t care much about having hit records or anything like that, so doing covers would be very rare, but I like the director so much that I decided I’d listen to the song. I lived with it for a while and tried to see if it could be a part of me, and I decided to give it a try, and that was it.
Chip’s extraordinary cover of Regina Spektor’s “On The Radio”, with its prescient lyrics:
[“A million ancient bees / Began to sting our knees / While we were on our knees / Praying that disease / Would leave the ones we love / And never come again”]
PKM: So at 79 years old, do you feel your age?
Chip Taylor: Yeah. (laughs) But, I don’t know what this age is supposed to feel like. I’ve always been edgy and nervous about certain kinds of things, and traveling is one of them, and it’s very hard for me to travel. I get very bad jet lag, so it’s hard for me to think about doing that and going on tour, but the other side of it is worse, not going. This is a good period of time, I’ve been making some of my favorite music.
PKM: What do you think of the changes in the music business?
Chip Taylor: One of the things that is nice is that the business changes that we all saw coming, and we all felt it was going to hurt us badly… the little amount of records we sold we weren’t going to sell anymore… and nobody is going to play us because of streaming… well that happened in the reverse for me. We decided to go on Spotify about six years ago and the streaming stuff has been amazing for me. All the things that I worried about, were worse when it was the other way. I used to put a record out, hire a promotion man who would pick what the single was, and the record would go up Americana charts and then down, and then that record was over, but with Spotify it’s different. You put your music out there and the people tell you what they like, not a promotion man, and the people seem to like what I like. It could have come out five years ago but all of a sudden somebody starts to play it and it starts to get popular. A good example that is “Fuck All The Perfect People,” it was out for a few years, then all of a sudden one of the playlists on Spotify started playing it and it went viral, at one point it it was up to number nine. A couple years later Sex Education put it in their TV show and it went viral again in seven countries. So there’s a whole list of songs that are streaming hits that never would have gotten played otherwise.
PKM: So what’s next?
Chip Taylor: I’m supposed to go to Holland in April and Norway in May.*
PKM: If you don’t like flying and you don’t need the money, why do you keep doing it?
Chip Taylor: That’s a good question. I don’t know, maybe I’ll change. One of the things I like to do is make the music, and I certainly like playing the things for the people and it’s hard to think that I’m going to make the music and not be able to play, the music needs to be heard. The crowds aren’t enormous, anywhere from 100 to 200 seaters, but they’re all crowded, all sold out, and you can hear a pin drop and we’re in it together.
PKM: And that’s what keeps you going?
Chip Taylor: Yeah. That’s a nice feeling.
*Chip Taylor – WHAT NOW
“What Now” is a home recording of a song written & recorded by Chip Taylor from his self-quarantined space … 45 minutes north of NYC, on March 17th, 2020.