Sam Taylor made me love music.
I was 16 years old when my sister’s fake ID got me past the tattooed doorman at the Taurus Tavern. On the southern-most end of what was then a sleepy avenue near the funky shores of Venice Beach, you could smell the Taurus a block away. With the ambiance of a biker bar, it was peopled by ‘60’s hippie-holdouts, wandering poets, curious teenagers, true music lovers, and occasional celebrities. The assortment of regulars included a tall, lean blond woman who danced like a Picasso painting, each limb jerking in a geometric pattern of its own, her constant companion an elfish grey-haired gentleman, a sweet drunk who watched her with the uplifted gaze of a smitten choir boy.
The club itself was unspectacular, your basic square cement room with a forgettable-looking bar at one end near the door, the type Sears would sell if they peddled bars. Most weekends there was a table full of us, not one over 18, cocky and gloating at our unquestioned entrance into this smoky adult domain. We’d order up pitchers of beer, laugh and make exaggerated faces as we carried them back to the table, and then gleefully pour tall glasses and make huge toasts. In retrospect, we were most definitely, obviously under age, as bright as the first neon motel sign after 100 miles in a midnight desert. But we were innocent and full of enthusiasm, and everyone who sought out the music was welcome.
And it was all about the music. Sam Taylor’s music.
Sam Taylor is a blues man. About 40 years old when I met him, Sam has retained the short, stocky stature of the boxer he’d once been – he’d had to train his pummel-stiffened fingers to curve around the neck of a guitar. His full black face is cherubic when happy, beatific when singing, and usually framed by either the long-pointed collar of a polyester suit or the neon of a donated t-shirt. And always the navy blue admirals cap that he bought on Venice Beach. No matter what the outfit, Sam has a honeyed husky voice that can sing a song to curl the hair on your toes, or scorch the skin right off your back.
That night almost 20 years ago when I first heard Sam, I had no idea what I was hearing, or even what kind of music it was. All I knew was I felt it – and needed to hear it. My body
showed me its rhythm, and my heart swelled with the effort of absorbing the emotion that poured from Sam. That first time in the Taurus Tavern, folks had shoved the small round tables and flimsy chairs back up against the wall, and hardly a body in the place stayed seated. Some people boogied, some swayed with eyes shut tight, some wept, and some stared in awe, wondering up at the naked soul, the phenomenon of Sam. This became my church, the music my religion. I found out later that this was The Blues and nothing but, but I didn’t really care what it was called. I only knew I needed to fuel my spirit with it, and I became a weekend regular for the next five years.
I have come to know Sam well, and to understand his blues as much as can a young white girl. I once felt I had a special ownership of the feelings they inspired. When Sam would wax forth his theory of the blues — “If you can’t feel the blues you got a hole in your soul and never ate chicken on Sunday” or “Blues is feeling. Blues is pain. Ain’t no man was ever born, lived or died what didn’t feel some pain. That’s the Blues” — I glowed with the knowledge that he knew that I alone understood the depth of his expression. Sam has that rare talent of great preachers and world leaders, to make each person believe that his private domain is shared with you alone.
Sam was born in Mobile, Alabama back when black men still hung from trees and Billie’s mournful singing of “Bitter Fruit” needed no explanation. As I literally grew up with his music, Sam would regale me with stories of the old days, of how as a child he’d hide under his stilt-raised house and pretend he was somewhere else, somewhere beautiful. Of how much he loved his mother, and grew to believe that she, along with most other women he met, were really angels come down to lighten the loads of our lives and generously turn their love our way. (As I matured, he would give me a sly wink and say “Good lovin’ is like music – if no one says “‘Ooh, it’s good,’ you never know what you got.”) Of Sweet Mama Do-Right, the local voodoo woman, so named because she could cure your man of his do-wrong ways, and of how she told him “When someone done you wrong, you feed ‘em with a long-handled spoon”, meaning you keep them at arm’s distance so they can’t do you wrong again. And of how, as a boy of around nine, he was sent away to join his father in New York City. His father, who’d shot a white man in self-defense and then had to leave town, had gone north to the big city where he sought fame and fortune as a jazz man, a horn player, under the moniker Sam “The Man” Taylor. Sam told me how he had sat alone on the north-bound train, unmoved from the seat into which his mother had tucked him, crying as she said goodbye; how he was riveted to the radio that blasted out all around him, describing each duck and blow of Joe Louis’ world championship fight, and how, when the train pulled into Penn Station, black folks were jumping up and down, screaming, laughing, hugging each other. Some grown men were even crying. Sam told me his life changed right then, when he saw the pride on the faces of these northern blacks, and how he resolved to someday make people feel that exact same way.
And so, despite a very good crack at becoming a world-champion boxer, Sam Taylor came to realize that he was “saved” to make music — literally saved. In the extraordinary way of many musicians, and blues singers most especially, Sam has continually attracted danger and mayhem into his world, possibly to continually live it down, to defy it much as Joe Louis did on that day of days. Smiling, Sam says “I been around the world and spoke to everybody twice… I ain’t never had enough of anything but hard times and mean women.” As he’ll tell you himself when he lifts his shirt to reveal the scars that run from his throat to his belly, “I been saved to sing the blues.”
So from what was Sam saved? Near death tops the list, often from unnatural causes. There was the time when he was around 16, living in Brooklyn, fighting his way up the boxing ranks, Joe Louis fresh in his mind, his morning routine including a five mile run, the same route each and every day for over a year, with not one single exception. Down the same avenue, across the same park in the same place, the route never changed. Then one day, when he was sick and overslept, an old man in the park exactly in Sam’s spot was shot by some young punks, their gang initiation being to shoot the first person who came by at 6 am, which on any other day would’ve been Sam. There was also the World War II chest wound that narrowly missed his heart, the three (count ‘em) triple by-pass heart surgeries, none of which he was supposed to have survived, not to mention the drug addiction he eventually kicked.
Sam found his father in New York, but Sam Sr. turned out to be a cold man, dedicated solely to his music, with none of his son’s inherently worshipful appreciation of the female sex. The fact that Sam Sr.’s litany of revolving girlfriends doted on young Sam made him even less welcome. Three am, a dingy room over the joint where Sam Sr. has just packed up his horn, and here’s his woman cooing over his kid, nylons hanging from the lamp, she in a too-familiar robe, the ardor of the previous night suddenly exchanged for the unwelcome hominess of her bathing Sam Jr. in the sink, laughing and splashing and yelling over her shoulder without even turning around to greet Sam Sr.
But somehow, despite growing up in a society that considered him an outsider, Sam has never traded his bright eyed optimism for bitterness. Laughing, he says “They ain’t no place in my body for bitterness,” and in the same breath, “I sang my way out of jail one time — you wanna hear that?” It seems he was once jailed while driving through the South for going one mile over the speed limit. Sam was loaded into the back seat of the local sheriff’s car and driven down a country road, dust flying as they trekked over potholes, through streams, across overgrown railroad tracks, to a one-room jailhouse. Certain a lynch mob would arrive when darkness came, Sam was so relieved when his jailor turned out to be a rickety old black man that he responded to his jailor’s inquiry “You know any church songs boy?” with countless gut-wrenching renditions of the old spiritual “Milky White Way.” As luck would have it – the luck typical of Sam’s life – it was his jailor’s favorite song, the one his old mother used to sing to him. As Sam sang it over and over again, the old man cried and swooned into his jar of corn liquor, reminiscing about dear old mama. When the old man left to replenish his supply of corn whiskey, while yelling to his brother “C’mon down here, Bubba! This boy knows ‘Milky White Way!’ ”, Sam made his break. Fueled by terror, he ran through the woods, expecting hungry hounds jaws to find his ankles, or for a white-hooded figure to appear before him. “Looka’ here” he recalled, “I was runnin’ blind, fallin’ down, and bleedin’, but look like every time I’d fall down I’d get up faster.” He didn’t stop ‘til he crossed the state line.
All of Sam’s pain and joy, the history he carries in his bones, can be heard in a single word of song. Never mind the constant economic struggle of the blues man’s life, the years of pawning his guitar on Sunday evenings after his last gig to get the money to make it through the week, then getting his guitar back out of hock on Friday night to return to the spotlight before the microphone. Or the litany of crooked promoters on the Chittlin Circuit during the ‘50’s who’d skulk out the back door 10 minutes before the show was over and escape into the deep Delta night with the band’s earnings, leaving Sam to siphon gas every few miles to get to the next gig.
Sam has a long and impressive list of credits, having written for Sam and Dave, Maxine Brown, The Beach Boys, even Tiny Tim. He was part of one of the first integrated bands as a member of Joey Dee & The Starlighters (“The difference with them was that it was the white guys singing and dancing and the brothers playing in the band”). But it is not just the music that makes the Sam Taylor experience so unique. It is the fact that the total always equals much more than the sum of the parts. When Sam straps on his guitar and kicks into a syncopated rhythm, suddenly average players around him play better than they ever have, better than they ever will again. Sam’s voice has the ability to reach down and comfort the secret places in your heart you didn’t even know you had, like a preacher consoling a troubled parishioner. One night in the Taurus tavern, a woman scrawled with lipstick on the bathroom mirror “Thank you Sam for shaking the dust from my soul.”
One critic rated a Sam Taylor performance alongside the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen as among the top 10 shows he’d ever seen. Yet with the self-conjured reckless fortune of the blessed, Sam has for the last 25 years nixed any opportunity to break into the big time by his own hapless behavior, relegating himself to the life of local hero, of big fish in a small pond. Like the time in the ‘70’s when he was invited to open up for the Eagles but overslept, having partied through his appointment time with their manager.
Like most great performers, Sam loves drama, and is a master at its manipulation. When he stands alone on stage and whispers in a hushed tone, “Now we’re going back, way back, down to the basement of your soul and I’m gonna sing you a song y’all can feel cause we’ve all felt it in some way, some time.. now let the blues set you free,” and then, his face scrunched up, eyes alternately squeezed tight or spread wide, moans “Well I’ve had my fun if I don’t get well no more,” I understand exactly what he means.
I used to hurt for Sam, to feel each of his constant tribulations as personal injuries. I believed that he could “make it,” cut a record and enter the big time, if only he’d get out of his own way. He certainly has more raw talent than any ten stars I could name. But over the years I have come to appreciate the relationship Sam shares with every member of his usually small audiences, and no longer do I believe him when he says, with glazed eyes gazing above and beyond me, that his dream is to play for thousands of people. Sam Taylor is already living his dream, letting his heart and soul roll heartily from the tip of his tongue, taking folks to a place where tonight is all that matters, and where, through his music, they can wander the paths of hell and touch the gates of heaven. Inviting us to escape, even if just for a moment, into the safe and deep arms of his soothing voice. And to travel back to those few magic, peaceful days we shared at the Taurus Tavern, when his rendition of “I’ve Had My Fun” made the world seem right.