He Wrote Hit Songs for Hendrix and Joplin But No One Knew Who He Was: How Chip Taylor Made a Name for Himself
To download a free MP3 of Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez's "Angel of the Morning," click here.
Had Chip Taylor done nothing more than write the classics “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning,” his place in rock history would be assured. Fact is, however, in addition to writing those songs, the New York City-based veteran has amassed a vast body of work rich in Americana traditions.
As a recording artist in the ’70s and early ’80s, Taylor garnered a reputation for merging country and rhythm ’n’ blues in a way that gained notice in Nashville. Among his hits from this period were “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” which was co-written with Jerry Ragovoy and recorded by Janis Joplin, and “Son of a Rotten Gambler,” which became a Top Ten smash for Anne Murray in 1974 and was later covered by Emmylou Harris.
After giving up music in the mid-’80s to become a professional gambler, Taylor undertook a national songwriter’s tour in 1993 and began writing again. Then came several solo albums and a fruitful collaboration with violinist/singer Carrie Rodriguez that yielded three acclaimed duet albums. Both he and Rodriguez returned to solo activities last year, but they remain close, and their chemistry lives on in the just-released Live from the Ruhr Triennale, which features Taylor on his Gibson J-45.
How long have you been playing the J-45?
Well, I played a J-160-E for years, going back to 1963, when I was first starting out. There were two of them hanging on the wall at Manny’s in New York. I was going out of town and I asked someone at Manny’s to save one of them for me. When I got home I went into the store, and neither guitar was hanging on the wall. It turned out that John Lennon had just come in and bought one of them. Fortunately, though, they had pulled the other guitar and held it for me. I loved that guitar. At the time it was the only acoustic guitar I knew of that had a volume control. And it had the original amplification Gibson used back then. That’s the one I played whenever I went on the road, or played live.
Whenever I played at home I used a B-25--the three-quarter size Gibson. I actually wrote “Angel of the Morning” on the B-25. I still write on that guitar to this day. But my favorite guitar for the road is the J-45, which I got about three or four years ago when I needed something different. Sound-wise, it’s the best guitar I’ve ever had for the road. It has a nice warm sound. I play with my fingernails—I don’t strum with a pick—and other acoustics often sound edgy to me. The J-45 is warmer, and works well with my style. The tuning is unbelievable as well. It never goes out of tune.
You’ve lived your entire life in New York. How did you come to be drawn toward country music?
I remember the night I heard “My Wild Irish Rose.” I remember thinking at the time—I was just seven or eight years old—that music was going to be my life. It was like the first time you fall in love, or the first time you hold a girl close. And then when I first heard country music—on a radio station in Wheeling, West Virginia—I had the same kind of feeling. Suddenly the direction was set for me. In high school I had a country band, one of the only country bands in the New York area. And during that time I was also exposed to the “race records” from down south, with the Alan Freed show. The combination between that and country music really guided my path in the music business.
You were a staff songwriter during the heyday of the Brill Building writers. And yet you were completely different from most of that crowd.
That’s right. None of the writers in New York in those days were drawing from the sources I was drawing from. Most of those songwriters didn’t know the race records from down south, either. What I was doing made me more like a Memphis writer than a New York writer. Most of the writers around me were keyboard writers—Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Leiber and Stoller, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weils—and they were more polished and more pop-ish. They could write orchestrations and things of that sort, whereas I couldn’t read or write a note of music.
Did you feel like a misfit, or were you emboldened by the fact that you were different?
I'll tell you a specific thing that happened. I knew Bobby Scott a bit—the guy who wrote “A Taste of Honey” and all those brilliant songs—when he and Quincy Jones were co-heads of A&R for Mercury Records. I used to go and see them once in a while, and whenever I would go to their offices I would see their orchestrations lying around. And I was jealous. I was so jealous that one day I went over to Juilliard and registered for a course to get some formal training in how to write music. After that I saw Bobby and Quincy and I said, “I just signed up for Juilliard so I can learn how to do what you guys do.” They both stopped what they were doing and looked at me like I was crazy. They told me I was like a blues singer, and that I should just write what I feel. Bobby said, “There’s no amount of education that’s going to make that song that you played for us yesterday a better song. The only thing it might do is make it worse.” That was a really empowering afternoon.
You wrote and recorded the demo for “Wild Thing” on acoustic guitar. How close in spirit is the Troggs’ version to the version you first recorded?
The demo was exactly the way that you hear it on the Troggs record, except that it was electric guitar instead of acoustic guitar. “Wild Thing” was such an overt expression of sexuality that I was a little embarrassed for people to hear it, but the publisher sent it over to England, and the Troggs’ version was the last song they recorded for their session on that particular day. I love their record. A lot of people don’t understand just how great that record is. When Jimi Hendrix heard it in England he said it was the best thing he had ever heard. What Jimi did to the song was wonderful as well, but he was very inspired by the Troggs’ version.
You’ve said in the past that you can hear a common element in “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning.” What exactly do they have in common?
It has to do with what I was saying earlier. To me, both “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning” sound like they were written by a Memphis guy. If you take “Wild Thing” and slow it down a lot, you can start singing “Angel of the Morning” over it. I didn’t know many chords back in those days, but I knew how to use the ones I had. Both those songs have a sort of sweaty aspect to them that makes me feel something special. I love both those songs.