Chip Taylor – As a man grows older
All along the problem seems to have been that Chip Taylor’s music didn’t quite fit anywhere. His are deceptively simple structures, the words given plenty of room and space, attractive places for singers to let their voices, imagination and emotion take flight. Rather like Willie Nelson’s songs. Like Nelson, Taylor half-sings, half-talks his way across melodies that do not require operatic range. In Chip’s case, he’s simply too self-effacing to attack the microphone.
“So I had this record out that I really believed in,” he says, glancing out at the rain. “I don’t think the album was really that good. I’d say my most inspired work was the Last Chance album that came out in ’73. I loved that album. And after that I was trying to find a way to fit in to different places. But the single was called ‘One Night Out With The Boys’, and I loved this single. It just felt good to me, I thought it sounded like a hit.
“I wouldn’t let the record company release it until we had an understanding with the country division that they would promote it, because I didn’t want to go through what I had gone through before with Columbia. Their country division just refused to promote my record. So the Capitol people promised me they would, the record came out, and sure enough within a couple of weeks the thing was the most requested record wherever it was played. A couple of easy listening stations and three country stations. I talked to distributors, [and they] said it’s the hottest little jukebox single they had, and in a couple of weeks I was just really excited.”
And then Taylor called one of the stations that was playing his single, only to be told by the program director that they’d been asked to stop playing it. By Capitol’s country division. “In retrospect, I look back and I can understand this,” he says, utterly without rancor. “Let’s say if I was down in Nashville signing six or seven artists. I would say, Well, these are my artists. Who’s this guy coming in from New York with a record that I now have to include as part of my package?”
In the end, and to keep the corporate peace, his record was dropped. “I had some wonderful sentiment from the Capitol people,” he says, “but it really killed me. I said, ‘What am I gonna do now?’ I had another album ready to make, and I had the budget for it, and I had even started working on the next project. I just stopped making records. Neil Diamond’s manager took over Polygram Records and asked me if I would help him make some decisions, because they were in the hole $60 million.”
He spent a few months helping with Polygram’s reorganization before turning to his other love. “It wasn’t like I totally said I wouldn’t write a song again, or anything like that,” Taylor says, but his schedule was a bit full. “In the middle ’80s I got to be partners with probably the best handicapper in the world, the guy who’s made more money at it, and a wonderful, wonderful guy. His name’s Earnest Bahlman.
“So it wasn’t like it wasn’t lucrative; it was. But it certainly was an obsessive thing, because pretty much I’m obsessive no matter what the hell I do. Gambling was the thing I’d wake up at 8:30, work like crazy for like three hours, talk to my partner Ernie for about an hour and a half, go over every race, and every little possible thing you could think about. We each had hired people at the race track to look at the horses as they came out, to look at the shoes and stuff like that, and get back to us on cellular phones about any changes.
“I’d usually drive out to Long Island and spend my afternoons with him, betting, at an off-track betting satellite where he bet so much money that they gave him an office. And maybe at six o’clock I’d drive back to my apartment and shower and change my clothes and go down to the Soho Kitchen and lay my race track work out for the next day and start to work on that. And maybe at eleven o’clock I’d break for two hours and socialize and go out and have a few drinks.
“And my life was like that. I’d do the same thing the next day. Every once in a while I’d write a song. I had no calluses on my fingers. That went on until, I guess, ’95, when my mom was real ill. I started to go down to her house and sing for her. And I would sing for her and remember the look in her eyes. And it just made me feel so good.
“Playing for her, seeing her response, I remembered when I used to do it. Not so much when I did it as a business in the ’70s, when I was trying to break, trying to make these hits and whatever I was doing. But the way I did the Last Chance album, that spirit in a way, [the way] I did it when I was younger, when I was in high school. So I got that whole spirit back.
“[Gambling] was a very unsocial thing. I mean, yes, I had my social stuff with Ernie, because when you’re working with a master and he’s patting you on the back and saying great job and high fivin’ all day long and you’re winning all this money, it’s great. Hit pick-sixes for hundreds of thousands of dollars. I remember one day hitting a pick-six for $32,000, and it was like nothing. In retrospect I look back and say, What, are you kidding? I could use that to pay for my shortfall for my touring this year.”
In 1995, Taylor put his racing records to the side and began to make records of his own. Three all at once, more or less, beginning with a friend’s suggestion that he record his most famous songs by way of reintroduction. “So I was doing the Hit Man album at the same time I was doing The Living Room Tapes. Actually, I was doing another album, too, like a folk-rock album.” There was, of course, the matter of finding a label willing to release Taylor’s music once again.