Chip Taylor

Tuesday, November 28, 2000

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded Nov. 28, 2000, in New York.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about the First Amendment, the arts and American culture. I’m Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center. Joining us today is a man who wrote some of rock ‘n’ roll’s biggest hits in the ’60s and writes some of music’s most thought-provoking songs today: Chip Taylor. Welcome, Chip.

Chip Taylor: Nice to see you, Ken. Thanks for having me on.

Paulson: Great, great to have you here. You actually joined us the night we kicked off the show, and you saw what we intended to do here, a show about First Amendment…

Taylor: Right.

Paulson: … and music and the arts. Now, we’re glad to have you here. You may be one of those few folks who wrote what arguably would have been provocative in the ’60s — songs that didn’t get censored.

Taylor: Well —

Paulson: We do all this research, looking for examples of censorship, and you wrote “Wild Thing.”

Taylor: Right, well, I’m sure it was banned in a couple of places, but I think it happened so fast that before they could figure out what hit them, that was there, you know.

Paulson: Well, The Troggs had other songs banned, but I think you set the tone for their career with “Wild Thing.”

Taylor: Right.

Paulson: What went into the writing of that song?

Taylor: Oh, not much at all, I must say. Up till the point I wrote “Wild Thing,” my success was really — even though I was from New York — was country success. Ah, Chet Atkins, who was producing for RCA, was recording many of my songs. So up until “Wild Thing,” I was just having a little country success, and, which enabled me to survive the business, and I started to write some rock ‘n’ roll songs. My love of blues music and country combined to lead me in the direction of a certain kind of Memphis kind of stuff. And some producer heard that I was writing some cool rock ‘n’ roll songs and out of the blue called me as I was about to go in and do a country song for Chet Atkins, and he said, “Would you write something for me? I need something for a group.” And I was so flattered that I just picked up the guitar and — he said it was a rock ‘n’ roll group — and I started to write “Wild Thing.” And as I wrote it, I wrote a little verse, and then I wrote a little bit on the way over to the studio and asked the engineer to keep the tape runnin’ as I walked in and just played “Wild Thing.” And it lasted about five minutes. We edited the thing down, and there it was.

Paulson: Do you remember the first line you wrote?

Taylor: Oh, I think I probably — yeah, I started with the chorus, “Wild thing, you make my heart sing,” and that felt pretty good. And I then I just wanted to stop and say stuff. I mean, I’m the kind of writer that doesn’t think too much about what he’s writing about, you know? I, I just kind of let stuff come out. So when I went “Cha-cha-cha-oh,” and then it came out “Wild thing, I think, ah, I love you,” well, that’s what came out. It wasn’t like a — it wasn’t at all cerebral, and, ah, that’s what came out.

Paulson: Did it surprise you that it had this enormous afterlife in pop culture and baseball movies, and all kinds of things?

Taylor: Yeah, yeah. Oh, sure. The afterlife, the afterlife always surprises. Well, you know, looking back on my whole writing career now, it always kind of strikes, strikes me as funny because as I was going through that period of time, I wrote all those hits in a row. And it wasn’t important to me. What was important to me was the music. It wasn’t so important. Ah, yeah, I was really happy that “Wild Thing” went to No. 1, and it was more ’cause I could survive the business and hang around and write some more stuff, you know? So it — but in looking back now, you know, of the history of it all, it’s, it’s nice to see. I don’t like to dote too much in the past. I like to just get in there and do some more stuff.

Paulson: And yet, I know that when you do perform, you still do —

Taylor: Sure, yeah.

Paulson: — “Angel of the Morning,” and you do “Wild Thing.”

Taylor: I have fun with that, yeah.

Paulson: “Angel of the Morning” was, I guess, your second-biggest hit, or did that —

Taylor: Probably the biggest hit. “Wild Thing” is a bigger earner because it’s in the movies and the commercials and all that, but as far as airplay goes, “Angel of the Morning” is one of the most played songs of all time. And if it’s a hit once more, it may be the most played song of all time, and, you know, that was another one that came — I, I just — I was playing nonsense. I play chords and hum nonsense things to myself. That’s kind of my ritual there. I don’t think about what I’m saying, and I remember, after about 45 minutes of nonsense things coming out of my mouth, the first line of the song came out: “There’ll be no strings” — with the melody — “There’ll be no strings to bind your hands, not if my love can’t bind your heart.” And I said, “Whoa.” I had such a chill, you know. That’s, that’s what to me this business is all about, the inspiration that you get from being part of it and doing it. I mean, it was the same when I was a kid, when I knew I wanted to get in the music business. It all came from my mother and father baby-sitting me at a, at a Broadway play, at a musical, “My Wild Irish Rose.” And I didn’t want to go at all. I was 7 years old or something, and I didn’t want to do that. But they had to take me because they had no baby-sitter, so. I remember, after I left the theater, I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I had this chill up my … and I knew then that music was going to be everything to me, you know. And, so that was a, you know, that’s the same kind of feeling that I had when I started to write “Angel of the Morning,” this chill that, you know, it’s not something that I did. It was something that, you know, I feel, you know, that came, came through me.

Paulson: You still get that chill?

Taylor: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Oh, it’s — that’s what it’s all about to me.

Paulson: After a successful, highly successful career as a songwriter, songs recorded by Anne Murray, The Hollies, Top 40 hits, um, you launched your own solo career — highly respected as a singer/songwriter and some albums that are still revered by a lot of people who — I don’t think they sold in huge quantities, but the people who bought them appreciated them a great deal — and theLast Chance album, Somebody Shoot Out the Jukebox. And then after a decade of good music — very good music — you disappeared. Where did you go?

Taylor: Yeah, well, what happened to me, I had this thing. I loved music, and I also — my father used to baby-sit me at his poker — at his card games and gin rummy games. And I should advise people never to do that with their kids because I loved gambling. And I was — one of the good things about me is, I’m very good about knowing what I don’t know. So when it came time to gamble, I wanted to be an expert at it. I studied very hard. I was a, I was a blackjack player, a card counter, banned from all the casinos on the East Coast and wasn’t allowed to play in Vegas either and in several casinos in Europe. So I turned my sights on horses, and I became very good at that. So in the middle of my recording career — all along, even when I wrote the hits — I was still making one or two bets a day at the racetrack, and I was very successful at that. So when I finally had a run-in with my record company in, in 1980 — I was signed to a major label, and because I was from New York and doing country stuff, they were — the country division refused to support a single that was starting to break. And when that happened, I said, “I can’t win at this thing,” you know? And, and I guess that’s what triggered everything, and I just stopped. I had another album. I had a $100,000 budget to do another album. I just didn’t do it, and I instead turned my sights on gambling right up until 1995, when my mother got ill. And I sang for Mom one day instead of going to the racetrack, and that turned my life around. All of a sudden, it was back to the spirit of why I loved music in the first place, not the business of the music but me sitting there, playing a song for my mom and of her giving me her reaction with her eyes and her spirit. And it was so great, and instead of going to the track the next day, I did the same thing. And I think the first day was for Mom. The next day, it was for me and Mom. We had a wonderful week together. And I started writing some songs, and I would play her the songs. And that became my return album, which was The Living Room Tapes, all songs I play — sang for my mom before she passed away. But then I came back into the business with a total spirit of where it was for me when I heard “My Wild Irish Rose” stuff, you know, and now that’s what’s part of me now. And I — that’s going to be my life forever is just doing this, just making music for whoever will hear me play.

Paulson: Has it surprised you that you’ve been as well-received as you have been in Europe and elsewhere with your new material?

Taylor: With which?

Paulson: With all your new material.

Taylor: Oh, yeah. Well, it’s — there’s nothing like it. It’s, like, when I play for my, my fans — I have a small army of fans. They’re wonderful, wonderful fans, and they want the best of me. Yeah, some people come because they want to hear me do “Angel of the Morning” and “Wild Thing,” but not many. And what they really come to hear is a certain heart that I gave to my mom and my music, and that I, you know, that’s the good spirit of what I have to offer. And then, a lot of the stuff is just fun stuff and not so serious, but, you know. And some of it may be commercial, but I’m not thinking of it being commercial. Yeah, well, I didn’t even back in those days so much. I just wanted to write stuff that made me feel something, you know. Like, when I wrote “Angel of the Morning,” I — God, I wanted to write a — I loved the passion of that thing, you know? And it was right around the time in the music business when people were coming from all this pop stuff.

Paulson: Right.

Taylor: You know, where everything was orchestrated, and people were so precise. The drummer would play according to a chart. You know, a drummer playing according to a chart? That’s the way it was, and when a bunch of us came in the business, “We don’t want to do it that way,” we said, “No, we’re not doing it that way. We want to do it this way. This is what feels right.”

Paulson: What music moved you? Who influenced you to write the kind of thing you write today?

Taylor: I’d say it came from a couple of different directions. First of all, I listened to Wheeling, West Virginia, when I was a little kid. I got the station in at night. I was born and raised in Yonkers, New York, but I could hear this station late at night. And my dad would let, Dad and Mom would let me stay up late at night and I’d listen to country music ’cause I loved country music. Then, when I was in high school — you know, I had this song in the Last Chance album which starts, “I was on a bus coming back to us from Atlanta in ’53.” Well, I wasn’t coming back from Atlanta. I was coming, coming back from Bronxville, and probably it wasn’t ’53. It was probably more like ’54, but I did pick up this rhythm and blues magazine. I was coming back from the movies, and I looked at this … from Atlanta. And the top three songs in this … now, I had been a Jimmy Reed fan and some other, liked some early blues stuff. But I didn’t know who the hell this was. This is … the first three songs were by the same artist, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, and that was the “Annie” trilogy. And they were all banned from the East Coast, and I got the records. My record store guy got them for me. And so that stuff — blues and rhythm and blues — was a huge influence on me, and, ah, so it was country music and blues music that kind of guided my career.

Paulson: And the song called “The Real Thing.”

Taylor: Right.

Paulson: Hank Ballard and the Midnighters show up on a new CD called “Freedom Sings” that — in the interests of full disclosure — the First Amendment Center funded. It’s a CD that contains songs that have been banned over the years, and it includes “Annie Had a Baby” —

Taylor: Right.

Paulson: — the Hank Ballard song, performed here by Jonell Mosser. And it’s basically a CD containing songs that have been banned by government or censored by radio, and the last third of the album, though, is about songs that simply took a lot of guts to perform, songs that cause you to think. And that’s where you show up. Are there other songs where you kind of have to swallow hard and say, “This is going to be a tough one, emotionally, to do,” or, “This is one that could affect the audience”?

Taylor: The only ones that are tough for me to — you know, a lot of my songs are very passionate about friends and people like that, so if I get into that, really into those kind of songs, I get very choked up, you know? And that happens a lot to me, probably more than it should, but, ah, when I, you know, write about some — my mom or my friends or stuff like that, you know?

Paulson: Speaking of family, you have, arguably, the most successful pair of brothers on the planet, unless you’re members of the Jacksons, I suppose — that they have comparable success.

Taylor: Well, good guys; we’ll put it that way.

Paulson: Um, tell me about your brothers.

Taylor: Yeah, there’s three brothers. I’m the youngest, and Jon is the middle one — Jon Voight. I changed my name when I was a kid to be a rock ‘n’ roll star — changed my name. And, ah, Barry’s the eldest, a year older than Jon. Barry is, ah, Barry Voight. He’s the geologist. He’s one of the foremost geologists as pertains to volcanoes, and he’s, he invented the formula that predicts when volcanoes will erupt. And he has the data for all that stuff, and then, so he goes all, all around the place trying to decide whether, whether people should be evacuated and stuff like that, very dangerous kind of stuff — great guy. Jon is Jon Voight, the actor: “Midnight Cowboy,” “Coming Home,” “All the Rest,” “Runaway Train,” and — just great guys.

Paulson: There’s no room for sibling rivalry. You’ve all, all been enormously successful in —

Taylor: Different.

Paulson: — in different fields.

Taylor: Yeah, yeah.

Paulson: We are pleased to have you here because you play the kind of music that reminds all of us that, that it’s not, it’s not just tunes. It’s not just something you dance to. You write songs that make people think, that provoke reactions sometimes, to the point that you’ve had to issue a disclaimer. I was intrigued by that.

Taylor: Yeah —

Paulson: It’s free speech.

Taylor: You know, it’s not so much, Ken, that I really try to do that. I just try to let my spirit go someplace, and then I try to catch up to it and find out where we’re going with it, you know? As I say, some songs may come out, and they’ll — may sound like commercial kind of songs. But it’s not intentionally going there. And some songs may sound like, you know, they just go on and on and on just, just ’cause I’m going with it.

Paulson: Is it easier to be an independent voice in music today than it was in 1965?

Taylor: Well, for me it is. You know, maybe it’s ’cause of my spirit now, but I think it probably, it probably is in general. With the Internet and with all the stuff that we’ve seen about, ah, big — you know, it’s — there’s two separate things. First of all, the major companies — the few that are remaining — yeah, they sell a lot of records, and yeah, it is big business. But because the business had, has had to kind of get a clean slate, you know, people … the independent thing has taken the place of a lot of stuff that were there before. And people who have a voice and say they want to do it their own way now have more of a chance to be heard, and so, you know, you have your little labels springing up all over the place. And now it has a lot to do with people communicating with each other and performing their work and not so much companies going in there and spending a lot of money on somebody that just doesn’t tour and doesn’t work. There’s a lot of that, but there’s not — it’s not across the board anymore, you know? And it’s a wonderful thing, this Americana thing that’s sprung up. Now I’m back, and there’s a group of radio stations that play my music in the States and, and in Europe, and it’s kind of not that different over there. It’s, ah, it’s kind of country-folkish kind of stuff that is not the cookie-cutter kind of stuff. So people like John Prine and Lucinda Williams and the late Townes Van Zandt and, and Steve Earle and all these wonderful artists are on this chart, and you know, I’m so proud to be part of that whole movement. And, ah, you know, I think it’s going to be around for a long time. [Plays and sings] “I was on a bus coming back to us from Atlanta in ’53/ And I picked up a rhythm and blues magazine laying/ underneath my seat/ And I found out the stuff they were playing us/ wasn’t made from grits and bone/ And it’ll take more/ than the crew cuts and padded bone to take me home/ ’cause I want the real thing/ like ‘Work With Me Annie,’/ the real thing/ On that lady, make it loud/ make you proud of the songs that they sing/ like ‘Annie Had a Baby’/ Under my roof with your 86 proof,/ watered down till it taste like tea,/ gonna pull my string/ Make it the real thing for me/ “Let’s get quiet, boys.”/ I remember old Elvis/ when he forgot to remember to forget/ and when young Johnny Cash/ hadn’t seen this side of the big river yet/ and when the sun was more/ than the daylight shining on Memphis, Tennessee/ and old Luther and Lewis and Perkins/ was pickin’ and playin’ them songs for me/ And I want the real thing,/ like train of love’s/ a-leavin’ — leavin’ my heart green/ don’t it make you proud of the songs that they sing?/ Like ‘Annie Had a Baby’/ Under my roof with your 86 proof,/ watered down till it taste like tea,/ it gonna pull my string/ Make it the real thing for me/” Here’s the real thing. John, play that. [Guitar solo] “Lord, when sun was more/ than the daylight shining on Memphis, Tennessee/ and old Luther and Lewis and Perkins/ was pickin’ and playin’ them songs for me/ And I want the real thing/ like ‘Work With Me Annie,’/ the real thing, oh, my lady, make it loud/ I’ll make you proud of the songs that they sing,/ like ‘Annie Had a Baby.’/ Under my roof with your 86 proof,/ watered down till it taste like tea,/ gonna pull my string/ Make it the real thing for me/ It gonna pull my string/ Make it the real thing for me.” [Applause] Thank you. [Plays and sings] “Jizziz-zoom, shoo/ Jizziz-zoom, shoo/ Jizziz-zoom, shoo/ Jizziz-zoom, jizziz-zoom, ah-oom/ Take a pill from Montezuma on the shores of Aruba/ Guess they’re sending that kid back to Cuba/ Look at that/ The Red Sox lost three straight/ Page nine — oh, baby/ NASDAQ, she’s going crazy/ Your old Ford’s a new Mercedes/ And look that/ The Yankees won another one/ And it is hey, sweet mama, give us a kiss/ It don’t get better than this.” Help us out, boys. Here we go again. “Jizziz-zoom, shoo/ Jizziz-zoom, shoo/ Jizziz-zoom, shoo/ Jizziz-zoom, jizziz-zoom, ah-oom.” Take it, John. [Guitar solo] “ It is hey, sweet mama, give us a kiss/ It don’t get better than this/ Golf course in Arizona/ Tiger Woods is 14 under/ the last round postponed by thunder/ Get yourself an umbrella, boys/ Go fishing/ You got no chance/ And it is hey, sweet mama, give us a kiss/ It don’t get better than this.” Give us another one, John. [Guitar solo] “And it is hey, sweet mama, give us a kiss/ It don’t get better than this.” Let’s get quiet, boys. “Blue wall came crashing/ Springsteen’s at the back/ He’s cashing/ Ain’t there two sides here?/ It’s all I’m asking,/ and when’s the last time he got shot at?/ And it is hey, sweet mama, give us a kiss/ It don’t get better than this.” Let’s get quiet again, boys. “Fourteen days, he’ll be injected/ and the judge said that he suspected/ the DNA would be rejected/ But George says,/ ‘We ain’t killed an innocent man yet, /not here in Texas.’/ And it is hey, sweet mama, give us a kiss/ It don’t get better than this.” Here we go. “Jizziz-zoom, shoo/ Jizziz-zoom, shoo/ Jizziz-zoom, shoo/ Jizziz-zoom, jizziz-zoom, ah-oom/ Take a pill from Montezuma on the shores of Aruba/ Look at that/ They’re sending that kid back to Cuba/ And there you go/ The Red Sox lost three straight/ And it is hey, sweet mama, give us a kiss/ It don’t get better than this, no/ And it is hey, sweet mama, give us a kiss,/ and pass me the piña colada/ Jizziz zoom, shoo.”

Paulson: Our special thanks to Chip Taylor, Tony Mercadante and John Plantain. I’m Ken Paulson, back next week with another conversation about the First Amendment, the arts and America. I hope you can join us then, for “Speaking Freely.”

Taylor: A-one, two, three. [Plays and sings] “Wild thing, / you make my heart sing/ You make everything groovy/ Come on, wild thing/ Wild thing, I think I love you,/ but I want to know for sure/ So come on, hold me tight/ Oh, baby, I love you/ Wild thing,/ you make my heart sing/ You make everything groovy/ Come on, wild thing.” Rev it up, Johnny. [Guitar instrumental] “Wild thing, I think you move me,/ but I want to know for sure/ Oh, baby, hold me tight/ Oh, you move me/ Wild thing,/ you make my heart sing/ You make everything groovy/ Come on” Oh, I’ve got a bass solo, and everyone out there in TV land is going to sing it with me. Here we go — Tony Mercadante. “Wild thing,/ you make my heart sing/ You make everything groovy/ Come on, now, wild thing,/ Oh, shake it one time for me/ Come on, now, wild thing,/ shake it, baby, shake it one time.” [Applause]