We spoke with songwriter Chip Taylor about an Anne Murray flip side, his hit compositions “Wild Thing,” “Angel of the Morning,” “I Can’t Let Go,” and more, plus songs from his new album Whiskey Salesman 1958 on Train Wreck Records.
By Warren Kurtz
CHIP TAYLOR is the brother of actor Jon Voight and uncle of actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie. His inspiration for his new album comes from another family member, his wife Joan.
GOLDMINE:Chip, let’s start with Anne Murray’s “Son of a Rotten Gambler,” the flip side of her pop cover “Just One Look.” It is beautiful with lyrics pondering what kind of son the boy will be, “teaching love and honesty.”
CHIP TAYLOR: I am so glad that you picked that song. If I had to have one song in my arsenal to talk about, this might be the one, because it is one of my favorite recordings of any of my songs. It was written for my son, Kristian, to warn him of the evils of gambling. I got such a chill when I heard the recording. Anne’s delivery was so beautiful and for Brian Ahern, as a producer, to have the courage to start that song with the gentle organ fading in, is just something you do for yourself but might hurt you with the DJs, but it didn’t in this case. It was wonderfully done. One of my saddest moments is what became the demise of that record. When I was on tour traveling across Texas, for three to four weeks, “Son of a Rotten Gambler” was going to No. 1 on every station, whether it was a pop or country station. I was thinking what a blessing it was for this to happen. Then I saw that it was starting to make some traction nationally, taking a fairly big jump and was just about to break into the pop charts. In Canada, Anne’s home country, it was No. 1 on their adult contemporary stations and No. 3 on their country charts and I could feel that it was going to go to No. 1 in the U.S. and then something happened. The momentum slowed down. I called Brian and asked what happened. He said that the people at Capitol told him that because this would be the last single from Anne’s Love Song album, which had already sold 800,000 albums, they didn’t think they were going to sell many more copies no matter what chart position the single achieved. They said, “If we release the new album, Highly Prized Possession, we will sell a close to a million new albums as we’re going into Christmas.” I’ve been on that side of the business and I knew what their thinking was. With close to a million new sales, the corporation would appear to be more financially healthy, and bonuses come in on top of that. I don’t blame them, but I think it is just wrong thinking. Stopping a work of art from achieving its success by aborting it in the middle of its run would never seem healthy to me. But Capitol convinced Brian, with the promise of a great marketing plan for the next album, and a big promotion budget for the new single, a cover of The Beatles’ “Day Tripper,” that it was the best thing to do. Although it felt like a stab in the heart to me, Brian remains my great friend and I’m sure he had the best interest of his artist. He never thinks otherwise. On a positive side, “Son of a Rotten Gambler” was an amazing recording, by a world class producer, that did reach a lot of people, just not as many as it could have.
Flip side: Son of a Rotten Gambler
A side: Just One Look
Top 100 Debut: November 9, 1974
Peak Position: No. 86
GM:Now let’s move to some new songs from Whiskey Salesman 1958. There is “Naples,” a story about the city in Florida where my sister Jill lives off of the Tamiami Trail that you sing about, near the gulf where you and your wife Joan are “standing next to a sand castle” in the video.
CT: Many of the songs on the CD are love songs for my wife and this is certainly one of my favorites. The lyrics of this entire song are true, from the ride down 5th Avenue to the turn on 3rd Street and finally walking to the beach and seeing that magical sand castle. What a precious memory for Joan and me. By the way, one of the interesting things about this album is that we did humble little video films of each song. There is a DVD as well as a CD in each package. The setting for many of the films is my local bar in New York, Parnell’s, with all my friends there. Joan’s stamp is sprinkled throughout. The film of Naples is actually taken in that town mostly with my iPhone. After we did these little video films, a very nice thing happened. I submitted one to a couple of film festivals, just for the heck of it, not really expecting any answer. A few days later we received a letter in the mail that we had been accepted to the New Media Film Festival and that Joan and I would walk the red carpet. Previous winners at the festival included Leo DiCaprio and Jeff Bridges. We went out there in early May and won their Pilot Award. One of the principles of the festival was that all films contain socially redeeming content. One of the perks is that the people associated with the festival have made arrangements for all eleven videos from Whiskey Salesman to be released as a film and that is what we are in the process of doing.
GM:Goran Grini on piano does such a nice job on “Naples” and throughout the album.
CT: You’re right, he is so amazing. What a blessing it was to meet him seven or eight years ago. I was doing an album in Norway and needed a keyboard player and a kind engineer suggested him. We’ve been friends and producing partners ever since. When we’re not together, Goran plays in Norway with an amazing singer and my friend, Paal Flaata, and is musical director for a few other important ensembles there.
GM:“I Love You Today” has a wonderful melody and begins with a chorus, like a Motown composition. It is very catchy. We are immediately introduced to what is going to happen.
CT: Thanks. It didn’t even think of that. Again, this is a love song for Joan. It’s about missing her on a certain occasion and it simply tells the truth of an evening together, from start to finish.
GM:“Hold Her” has some nice advice, is very uncluttered, and sounds like a country demo to me.
CT: That’s a good observation. It does sound a bit like one of my uncluttered country demos from the early days. Once in a while, when I am left alone with my guitar, I let my fingers hit the strings in a little different manner, sort of letting then do what they want to do, and sometimes a little magical feel happens. That’s what happened here. And the simple words flowed easily, and we recorded it simply, sort of like a country demo like you mentioned.
GM:There is an interesting twist on “See the Good Side of the Guy.” I love the story.
CT: Me too! Ok, about the story. It tells of a “friend" who helps me through tough times on one hand, and on the other hand, often screws things up. But when all is said and done, I suggest looking in the mirror and seeing “the good side of the guy.” The video is from my mom’s home movies. When I finished the song and made the video, I sent it to my brothers. I asked them, “Who am I talking about here, you or your brother?” Barry got a good laugh, but didn’t have any concern, but Jon was just a bit nervous. He was quite sure I was talking about him. The three of us are very close. It was a fun thing because, in essence, I am really talking to myself.
GM:Speaking of your family, do you spend time with your niece Angelina?
CT: She invited me to the New York City opening of her Cambodian film First They Killed My Father. I spent part of that night talking with her and her great kids, which was a beautiful thing. Now I’ll give you a hint of something else. It looks like later this year Angie and I will link together in an interesting manner. I can’t really talk about it now, but Angelina confirmed it through my brother Jon a few weeks ago, so i guess it will happen. Stay tuned.
GM:Speaking about beautiful, Pee Wee Walters’ trumpet on “See the Good Side of the Guy” is very nice.
CT: I sure agree with that. He’s amazing. I owe his discovery to Goran, who surrounds himself in Norway with an amazing family of musicians who seem to play from one heart. We’ve made this record, and the last few, in a sort of back and forth manner. I have a little studio in Mamaroneck, New York, and I go there with a great friend who is a one of a kind bass player, Tony Mercadante. Tony plays with me on some recordings and on tour. He also does the engineering for me at my studio. I get in my little vocal booth with my guitar and play and sing each song. We do just a couple of tracks and pick the best one. Sometimes we might do a bit of editing, but we keep that to a minimum. Usually I’ll add a bit of harmony. Then, Tony sends the tracks to Norway to Goran. Goran sketches some things out, plays keyboard and gets a few of the musicians there to add their magic and then sends it back to me and we do some adjusting by way of back and forth emails. We also send several tracks to upstate New York to my brilliant guitarist friend, John Platania, who adds his magic to pretty much every album I've done over the years, including this one, where he added so much magic. Goran then mixes, and we adjust in the same manner. It’s good if we can get together for this process in Norway or New York but we can’t always do that.
GM:In terms of new releases, in addition to your album, there is a new album from Linda Ronstadt, from a 1980 show, called Live in Hollywood, which opens powerfully with your composition “I Can’t Let Go.”
CT: I wrote the song with my talented and great friend, Al Gorgoni. Al and I wrote several songs together back in those days and produced the great Evie Sands together. Regarding Linda’s record, it sounds like a perfect live recording. It is quite awesome. The arrangement is pretty much exactly like the original single, but the bass is amazingly good on this version, almost reminding me of a Phil Spector bottom end sound, very powerful. When I had my album Last Chance out in the ‘70s, I performed at The Troubadour club in L.A. and I met Linda. She seemed lovely and sweet. We shared a few words after my show at a backroom table. That’s a nice memory although I wished I said more. I was a bit shy in that setting. I am so pleased that she recorded one of my songs.
GM:This summer we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. On the second day of the festival in 1969, in the middle of her set, Janis Joplin sang your song “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder).”
CT: The story behind that is that I had written one hit with Jerry Ragovoy. He had come to town and asked if I would like to write with him. We wrote “I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face” in about twenty minutes. It reached No. 1 on the R&B charts for Justine “Baby" Washington in 1964. Pat Thomas was on the jazz charts with it, Aretha Franklin, Mohammed Ali’s daughter Soji Clay, and many others recorded it. The second time he called me, he asked if I would like to write something that week for Garnet Mimms as he was coming up for a session. I said, “Sure.” We wrote a ballad for him called “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder).” It was like an Otis Redding song. It sounded very cool. Then sometime later Jerry called and said that Lorraine Ellison was coming up for a session and asked if I could turn the song we wrote for Garnet into an up-tempo song. This was on a Sunday and he said he needed it on Monday. That proved a complication. I was betting horses at the time. I was a very good horse race handicapper and I had a horse that I wanted to bet at Aqueduct Race Track on Monday at 1 p.m. So that Sunday night I took one of my favorite songs that I had written that had not been a big hit before called “On My Word” and took the groove of it and tried to force some of the original words we had written for Garnet into it. By the end of the night I had the new up-tempo version of “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder).” The next morning at 10 a.m. I played it for Jerry and he liked it a lot and we did a demo right there in his studio office. Then I went to the racetrack and my horse won, so it was a good day. I knew that Lorraine was going to cut the song but didn’t know that Janis was going to record it later. The first time I heard Janis’ version was on the radio. That was nice. Then I met Janis at a Clive Davis party in 1969 and spent a little time with her and she was very sweet. As we were talking, Bob Dylan walked over to say hello. He was a bit confusing to me, but I liked him. The only thing missing here is I wonder what happened to the demo of “Try," the ballad we wrote for Garnet. And I have no idea if Garnet ever heard it or attempted to record it.
GM: Around that time too, I was taking piano lessons and bought the sheet music for “I’ll Hold Out My Hand.” I have the single by The Clique and later bought the album by Smith with Gayle McCormick delivering such a powerful vocal on your song.
CT: Gayle’s voice is very soulful. I’ll Hold Out My Hand” is another of the songs I wrote with Al Gorgoni. The Clique version was very good. The singer Randy Shaw was amazing. With Gayle, they double-voiced her in the nicest way. Both are beautiful records. The Box Tops also recorded a version on one of their albums. It was also quite soulful. Al remembers liking these records as well. As I remember, we had done a rather fully produced demo for this song and there are elements of Al’s great arrangement in all these recordings.
GM:In the mid-‘60s was “I Can Make It With You” by the Pozo-Seco Singers, a group that I learned about on the shelves of the Euclid Public Library, in suburban Cleveland, in the mid ‘70s. Susan Taylor, now known as Taylor Pie, from that trio told me, “I remember when the Pozos first heard the song and wanted to record it. Our producer, Bob Johnston, was against it because he thought we should follow "Time" with another song that had a female lead on it, but as a group, we loved the song and didn't care who sang lead. It was perfect for a kind of back and forth vocal arrangement, so we worked it up Pozo style with Don on lead. When we got into the studio, Bob was angry that we were adamant about cutting it because he thought it was too "pop," so he put all that drumming on it in the beginning, hoping to discourage us. That didn't work and of course the DJs liked our vocals so, it got airplay.” We know that Don Williams from the group went on to a successful career in country music.
CT: I love that little story from Susan! Just to give you a little background as to how I would come to write a song like this, my first success as a songwriter was country music even though I was from Yonkers and there was no country music being played there. I heard country music on the Motorola radio that my mom and dad had at a very early age and I became a country music fanatic. I was the lead singer and songwriter for country band in high school and we had a bit of success. But then I started to try to write some country songs for others and needed to convince New York publishers to publish them. What really got me in the business was when one of my songs was published, and a demo that I made was sent to Chet Atkins, who was the head of A&R for RCA Victor in Nashville. The publisher read me a message from Chet. It said, “I’m recording that song you sent. I have no idea who Chip Taylor is. It’s hard for me to believe he’s from New York, but wherever he’s from, I want to hear every song he writes.” So that was it! Chet cut pretty much every song I sent down with The Browns, Eddy Arnold and many others. That later led to hits by Bobby Bare and Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson cutting others. With all the country success, I was signed to April Blackwood Music as a staff songwriter and I started to spread my wings and use blues influences I had heard as well on that Motorola radio and combined that with country to write my own brand of rock and roll or R&B or pop. The building where I did my writing was the same building where Gerry Goffin and Carole King wrote, along with others at 1650 Broadway. In the musical Beautiful you can see how it was when publishers would come in and say who needed songs for their next records. One day I heard that Jackie DeShannon said that she would like it if I would write her a song. I was so flattered and within minutes I wrote “I Can Make it With You” with her in mind. Both she and the Pozo-Seco Singers recorded it around the same time. The tempo of Jackie’s version is more like how I wrote it. But I loved the Pozo-Seco Singer’s record as well with those cool, understated harmonies. A Pozo-Seco story I have is that Susan Taylor came to my writing office to say hello a few times. I liked her very much. She had a guitar that she was playing, and I told her how much I loved the guitar and she gave it to me. I paid her some money, but not nearly as much money as it was worth. It was a nice thing she was doing for me. That guitar has stayed with me for all these years. It is the guitar I pick up every morning. It is the guitar that I have written all my songs on ever since I got it. This guitar has been a blessing to me and it was such a nice way how it came to me.
GM:We talked about the tempo of “I Can Make it With You,” and that reminds me of a tempo story with one of your biggest hits, “Wild Thing.” Our daughter Brianna was at summer band camp in Virginia and my wife Donna was one of the chaperones for the high school band members. Assistant Band Director Melvin Bentley felt the students’ tempo was way too slow as he recited, with exaggeration, “Wild thing (rest, rest, rest, rest) you make my heart sing (rest, rest, rest, rest) …”
CT: I’m on the side of the high school band members here. I think Wild Thing is a good example of the power of silence! The slower it is, the more time you get to think about stuff you might like a lot, but you might want to keep to yourself! Here’s how the song came about. “Wild Thing” began when I was at my cubicle with a desk, piano and telephone in my small office at April Blackwood Music. A songwriter / producer I had never met, Gerry Granahan called and said that he knew I wrote country songs but heard that I was starting to write some interesting rock and roll songs. He asked if I would send one over for him. I told him that that I was so flattered that he’d called, that I’d try to write a new one for him that day. I got off the phone and within minutes came up with the chorus for “Wild Thing.” I didn’t know what I was going to say after that. I just knew I was going to make a complete stop, like in “Blue Suede Shoes,” and say something to this girl I was thinking about. I got over to the studio where I had time booked for 5 p.m. and I asked my engineer / friend, Ron Johnson, to turn the lights out. He had my stool and microphone ready. I figured I would just say whatever came to my mind, stopping in a few parts to accent some words. When I finished listening back to the first take, I liked it. Gerry Granahan recorded it with a group called The Wild Ones. It was a nice, cool blues record, but didn’t have the feel of my demo. It didn’t have that certain strum of the guitar which I always felt was so important to the song. The Troggs heard my demo in England. Their producer, Larry Page, was the guy who managed The Kinks and he had brought the song to them. He gave them ten minutes at the end of one of his other sessions to record “Wild Thing.” They did an amazing job in one take. When The Troggs’ record was going to No. 1 in England, Jimi Hendrix was there and was becoming a star overnight. He heard The Troggs’ record on the radio and told his girlfriend that he just heard the best record he ever heard and said, “Wait until you hear this.” The next morning, he was in the shower and heard it on the radio again and said, “That’s the one! I am going to play that song.” He started to play it in every show, ending his set with “Wild Thing.” If it wasn’t for The Troggs’ record, he wouldn’t have done that.
GM:“Angel of the Morning” was another big ‘60s hit composition for you. What does the line “victims of the night” mean?
CT: To me it means that the closeness they will feel will make the parting that much more difficult, but totally, unconditionally worth it. It is like two people who fell in love with each other in a war zone, maybe on other sides, and they would have one more night before he was going to ship out and they may never see each other again, but yet they simply knew that they would love each other forever. I played Evie Sands and Al Gorgoni the song when I wrote it. They seemed to love it. So, Al and I produced it with Evie. Al did a great arrangement and I wrote the interlude melody and put it in the lead sheet so that would always be included when the song was sung or recorded. I remember taking a while at the session to get the right magic sound on those little percussion blasts that introduce the verses. All covers of the song contain those elements. On a sad note, just as Evie’s record on the Cameo Parkway label was released, the company went bankrupt and they were tied up to the point where they couldn’t promote or manufacture. Evie had a smash on her hands, going to No. 1 everywhere it was played, but there were no records available. Then I received a call from Tommy Cogbill and Chips Moman asking if the song was available for a new artist they were recording, and we agreed that it would be OK as there was no chance to revive Evie’s record. They recorded a great record with Merrilee Rush. After a bit of a struggle to get off the ground, the single started zooming up the charts becoming a Top 10 record, reaching No. 7.
GM:You have been responsible for the first hit singles for The Troggs, Merilee Rush and The American Breed. Your composition “Step Out of Your Mind” was their first Top 40 hit, a few months before “Bend Me, Shape Me.”
CT: “Step Out of Your Mind” was the title song that Al Gorgoni and I wrote when we were doing a score for a very low budget film that was going to star Evie Sands and Ron Dante. The film never saw the light of day. Evie tells me maybe that was a good thing. I just asked Al about the song. He liked it a lot. He said he liked the “new age” feeling of it. I liked it as too although it was very different than songs I would write by myself. It was more Broadway-like rock. I credit Al big time for the demo arrangement and his general influence on the song.
GM:Brianna and I just saw Ron here in Florida on the Happy Together Tour. Speaking of Florida, this is where Barbara Lewis now lives. You provided her final Top 40 hit single, “Make Me Belong to You,” which I first learned on a beach music radio show in Virginia.
CT: That was the first song that Billy Vera and I wrote. Honestly, listening to it now brings a new magic. I like it more than I did the first time around. Later Billy and I would write the interracial hit “Storybook Children” sung by Billy Vera and Judy Clay. One of the things interesting things about “Make Me Belong to You” is that it became quite a big northern soul hit in England. As it was told to me, northern soul began with a couple of club DJs in England who played songs that were under the radar, but really cool, versus the big hits of the day and they were trying to outdo each other on what they could find. I went to one of the northern soul shows and they were playing some of the Evie Sands things we did with her including “Take Me For a Little While.” People came there about 8 p.m. with their dance clothes. They had lockers where they could change, and they danced straight for two hours and then went to take a shower, change their clothes and came back and danced again. They had all these movements that they made as they danced which was so cool. To learn that “Make Me Belong to You” was part of that scene makes me happy. I hope the scene is still continuing. By the way, you did me a good favor by having me re-listen to all these records in preparation for our session today. I loved listening and thinking about those times! Thank you so much.
See page 39 of the August 2019 issue of Goldmine for a review of Chip Taylor’s Whiskey Salesman 1958 album in our Indie Spotlight series.
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.