Woog's World / "Charlie Taylor: From Westport to Nashville"
Charlie Taylor grew up in Mayfield, Ky. At 14 he was yanked from his rural town of 2,000 -- 120 miles from the nearest big city, Nashville -- to Westport.
He arrived at Staples "doing my James Dean thing: blue jeans, white socks, loafers and a T-shirt," he recalls. In 1958, that was not the way Westport teenagers dressed.
But he tried out for football, and made 30 instant friends. Having a good-looking twin sister "didn't hurt me in the upperclassmen's eyes either," he notes. He joined the Downshifters, a hot rod club whose members included Mike Douglas (now known as "Michael" -- yes, that one).
Westport's "poly-ethnic" atmosphere opened Taylor's eyes. He lived near people named Buccieri, Izzo, Tuccinardi and DeMattio. He ate their cannolis and spinach pies, and drank their homemade wine.
"You knew everyone in town," Taylor says. "Everyone was friends, whether he or his father ran a company or was a cop." Taylor spent nights at the Y with members of the VSC fraternity. He soaked up the "bohemian atmosphere" of Westport; appreciated Staples -- "one of the best high schools in the country" -- and also enjoyed the Downshifters' "car culture."
But living in Kentucky had made its mark on Taylor. When he was as young as 8, his shortwave radio picked up powerful stations like WLS in Chicago, WWOL in New Orleans and WHBQ in Memphis. He listened to "race music" -- powerful blues, played and sung by black men and women -- that, he says, "I vibrated to like a tuning fork." He heard country, blues, rockabilly and soul.
Music had always been part of Taylor's life. His mother -- an excellent piano player -- loved Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. "Lots of other black singers, too," Taylor says. "Those records were always on our turntable." She was also a big band fan.
Westport's music scene was different. At night at Compo Beach teenagers parked, made out, and listened to doo wop on WINS and WABC.
Through the Downshifters, Taylor met Mike Borchetta. A Staples student, he was already producing rock shows. He drove a convertible and dated principal Stan Lorenzen's daughter -- two facts that impressed Taylor greatly. (Borchetta now lives in Nashville, and runs Mike Curb's very successful Lofton Creek Records label.)
Taylor got to know Barry Tashian -- a guitarist who later founded the seminal band the Remains, went on to play with the Flying Burrito Brothers, and is now a well-known singer-songwriter in -- yes -- Nashville.
Then there was Don Law. Today he's one of the biggest concert promoters in the country. In the early '60s he lived at Compo Beach, across from the marina. One day he took Taylor upstairs, and played a Thelonious Monk record.
"It sounded like cacophony," Taylor says. "Jazz didn't make sense to me." These days, he loves it.
It was in Westport too that Taylor spent summers working at Frederick Bedford's Beachside Avenue estate. To keep busy while mowing, Taylor made up lyrics to songs.
After Staples, Taylor went back to Kentucky for Transylvania College. He graduated from the small liberal arts school -- the oldest college west of the Alleghenies -- in 1965. By then he was playing sock hops with a band called Little Hilton and the Artesians.
But it was time for a "real" job, so Taylor became a fundraiser for non-profits. Yet the lure of music was strong, and in the late `60s he moved to west Texas. At a radio station there Hi Duncan -- Buddy Holly's former manager -- encouraged Taylor to be a songwriter.
"I wasn't even smart enough to know records had to be pressed," Taylor says. It took him three years to "screw up the courage" to move to Los Angeles. Once he did, things happened quickly.
He got married in Malibu. He met John Phillips' manager, who introduced him to other musicians -- Gram Parsons, Billy Preston, former Animals -- who took him under their wing. He studied song-writing at UCLA.
To pay the bills, he loaded trucks and delivered furniture. "I was as poor as a churchmouse," Taylor says.
He learned the writing craft, but drank too much. When his daughter was born in 1973, he knew he had to grow up. He realized he'd learned what he'd had to in L.A. It was time to move on.
He moved to Florida to work for the American Cancer Society, then again in 1985 -- to Nashville. Surrounded by musicians, he started writing again. In 2001 Dan Penn -- who produced the Box Tops' "The Letter," and wrote "I'm Your Puppet" and "Do Right Woman" -- told Taylor he deserved to make a record. Taylor traded his 1949 Ford coupe -- "my last vestige of the Downshifters" -- for time in Penn's studio.
High-powered musicians -- among them Scotty Moore, who played with Elvis; Jimmy Griffin, Bread's guitarist/vocalist who wrote the Carpenters' "For All We Know," and Spencer Oldham, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame keyboardist on "When a Man Loves a Woman" and "Mustang Sally" -- augmented Taylor's vocals. That CD -- "Once Upon a Time" -- made the 2003 Grammy Awards short list.
His second CD, "For All I Am"-- including drummer Jim Brock, who played with Joe Cocker, and Mike Durham (Dave Matthews) on guitar -- used equipment originally belonging to Motown, Muscle Shoals and Memphis studios. The music contains strains of Buddy Holly, Jim Croce, Jimmy Buffett -- and many other diverse genres -- but it is, quintessentially, Charlie Taylor.
With all he's done, Taylor is quick to credit Westport for his success. He calls his seven years here as "a formative experience -- a precious time." He enjoys returning (though his 50th reunion next year will be "hard to fathom"), and keeps in touch with many old friends.
"The memories are so fresh," he says. "People can't believe I remember that time so well. But it's almost like a movie in my head."
Or a song in Charlie Taylor's heart.
(Charlie Taylor's website is www.charlietaylormusic.com. Click "Store" to purchase his music.)