Chip Taylor – As a man grows older
In the keen clarity of night, just before descending into dream’s solace — a craving that can no longer be admitted into the busy hours of daylight — there is always time enough to suspect that one has not fulfilled the promises of youth. That moment when the fulcrum shifts and truth is more important than the rent, and the slippage of time is more troubling than the chattering clutch.
Truth. Which eventually cloaks itself in the same shades of gray that color our days, the same one as the other. Perhaps that’s why, in the hunger of innocence, the best work is done by young physicists, painters, and poets, and the most elegant compromises are fashioned by the aged, who have grown accustomed to that enterprise.
Not quite always, for we have the careers of Stephen Hawking, Pablo Picasso, Neil Young…others; not so many, but enough. Enough so that it is still possible to go willing and armed deep into the night, to remember that it’s the going and the enduring that matters, and to accept whatever truths that may reveal.
One morning last year Chip Taylor woke up and picked up his guitar, instead of the Daily Racing Form. And he began writing songs again, a habit he’d mostly dropped back in 1979. That was when Capitol, like Columbia and Warner Bros. before them, dropped Taylor. This would be a matter of small consequence, except that Mr. Taylor is one of those scattered few whose work has continued to endure the vagaries of radio programmers everywhere.
To wit: He wrote “Wild Thing”.
And “Angel Of The Morning”. And Anne Murray’s “Son Of A Rotten Gambler”, co-wrote the Janis Joplin epic “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)”, co-wrote the Hollies’ “I Can’t Let Go”…stuff like that. Maybe somebody else has had cuts by Jimi Hendrix, Frank Sinatra and Willie Nelson, but it’s got to be a pretty elite club.
It is possible that he has just released his best song (and with it The Living Room Tapes, his finest album since 1973’s Last Chance), though it’s hard to imagine that “Grandma’s White LaBaron” will become a radio staple. Nor that anybody else could sing it. It’s about his mother, her living and her dying. And it has about it the unmistakable stain of truth, hard-won words sung gently into the good night.
Conventionally told, Chip Taylor’s story should be a morality play of redemption: Talented writer succumbs to the temptations of gambling, abandons his muse for years, returns to his true calling only at his mother’s deathbed, finds success, happiness, and the girl in the coda at the end. Oddly enough, it’s the succumbing and temptation parts of that sentence that are inaccurate, though the gal was still up in the air at last report. See, Chip Taylor was as good a gambler as he was a songwriter, and there is an excess of discipline in his story, not dissipation.
Indeed, Taylor has walked away from a very successful career to play music to small audiences wherever he’s welcome. That’s the remarkable and almost inexplicable part of his story, but we rush ahead of ourselves.
“Ever since I was 18 or 19 years old,” he says in a quiet, rich voice, sitting a few steps from his guitar in a Nashville songwriter’s suite, “my drive was music and gambling. When I had my first hits, I allocated a certain amount of time to both. I never really slept much, so it was a lot of work and I loved both things.”
Taylor is the middle son of Elmer and Barbara Voight, a remarkable upstate New York couple — Elmer was a teaching golf pro; his short stint on the PGA tour ended with a back injury at the Bahama Open — whose three sons became a volcano scientist, an actor, and a songwriter. (The actor is Jon Voight, known for his roles in Deliverance, Midnight Cowboy and more than a dozen other films. Chip Taylor, born James Wesley Voight, changed his name because he didn’t think the original fit.)
Chip drifted through a couple colleges in the early ’60s, worked for a short time as a golf pro and became a staff writer for April-Blackwood Music. In which capacity he dashed off a song for a group called Jordan Christopher & The Wild Ones. Their version of “Wild Thing” disappeared without a ripple, and only a quirk in April-Blackwood’s English publishing deal placed the single in the Troggs’ hands. He also produced a bit, notably the Flying Machine, in which James Taylor (no relation) was first found.
Like most songwriters, Chip hoped to sing his own work. In the late ’60s he formed a duo with Al Georgoni (with whom he wrote “I Can’t Let Go”); they recorded one LP for Buddah as Just Us, then added Trade Martin and cut two more LPs as Georgoni, Martin and Taylor. Chip went solo, first for Buddah, then three LPs for Warner Bros., one for CBS, and one for Capitol.