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Chip Taylor, ‘Whiskey Salesman’ and All-Time Great Songwriter With a Litany of Classic Hits (Q and A)
Having penned the ultimate snarling garage rock song, “Wild Thing,” songwriter/artist Chip Taylor set forth a legacy that would be assured for decades to come. A seasoned, gifted songwriter logging over 50 years of experience in the trenches — he also composed the hits “I Can’t Let Go,” “Angel Of The Morning,” “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder,” “Julie,” among others — Taylor continues to be a vibrant participant in music, writing songs and issuing his own studio albums.
His latest, Whiskey Salesman, is a rootsy slice of Americana. He’s also building a whole new fan base of younger generation of music listeners thanks to his song, “Fuck All The Perfect people,” which was prominently featured in the Netflix series series Sex Education.
Rock Cellar: In today’s society where folks have a 15 minute attention span or less, what’s the one song you’d point them to on your new album, Whiskey Salesman, to grab their attention?
Chip Taylor: I guess I’d say “Whiskey Salesman,” “I Love You Today” for sure, “Some Hearts” is another one. But I guess if I had to pick one song but one of my favorites is “I Love You Today.”
It’s a love song for my wife Joan, It connects to me with the overall feeling I had when I wrote the song. The plan was I was gonna work like crazy on that Friday night and get all of the things I needed to get done and see my wife the next day. Somewhere around five o’clock I’d worked all day long and I was missing her so much, and I called her up and said, “Joan, I want to see you.”
But she said, “No, you made a promise. You’re gonna work tonight and you’ve got things to do. You can come up tomorrow. I’ll be okay and it’s rainy anyway so stay there and do your work.” So I said, “Alright” and got off the phone and wrote what I was feeling right then in a chorus. Then I put the chorus down and because I was missing her so much, I went outside and ran through the rain to the train station and called her just before I left the train station. “I changed my mind again, I’ll see you in 35 minutes.” The song takes me through what happened, I came back and wrote the song the next night about all the things that had happened that evening when I went through the rain to see her.
Rock Cellar: Having been a vital songwriter for over 50+ years, how do you manage to stay inspired and stay connected with your creative muse?
Chip Taylor: I don’t have a problem remaining inspired. The first song I wrote for the album was “Whiskey Salesman.” But one of the wonderful things that happened is I have a bar that I go to called Parnell’s Bar; it’s two blocks away from the house. I go there when I’m by myself; it’s also a place where I eat and they have very good pub food. When Joan comes to town she visits me there and we go there all the time.
But I was sitting at my own private stool there that overlooks the television set and they always put the golf channel on for me ‘cause my dad was a golf pro and I was a golf pro and I like to follow golf. I’m friends with some great girl golfers that are out there now and I’ve written some songs for them. I was listening to “Whiskey Salesman” with my ear buds in and suddenly it struck me, “what if somebody was here with me with a couple of small cameras filming me singing my songs here at the bar?”
We could capture the people that are here and the charm of the street and where it fits into the city and the wonderful city where I live. It hit me hard and I decided to do it. So I decided after I’d record every song I would my little video of every song at Parnell’s. The videos are so charming in their smallness and their humbleness. They’re really more slices of life than they are somebody trying to project some flashy thing on the screen.
Rock Cellar: You’ve gained a whole new audience with your song “Fuck All The Perfect People” being used on the Netflix show Sex Education. Imperfections are way more interesting that perfection.
Chip Taylor: Yes, I think so. (laughs) I wrote that song for prisoners. I woke up early on the last days of a session for a record of mine in Norway. The wonderful engineer lent me one of his guitars. I had this guitar that felt very differently in my hands, and the chords I played I’d never played before in that succession before. I wrote the song really fast. I was thinking about my interaction with prisoners that I had just seen and how much I love all of those guys. When I finished it I had a song that I knew I liked and felt like the prisoners would like it. And in fact they loved it when I played it in the prisons after that.
Rock Cellar: For the video, which has over 850,000 views, someone posted a great comment on YouTube with a great comment, “just found the theme song for my life.
Chip Taylor: (laughs) Yeah, I saw that. When the people doing Sex Education asked to use it, it was a difficult decision to make because you don’t know who the people are usually. But this time I was able to check it out a bit more and found out they were good people and they were using quality actors, so I let them use it. I hoped they used it in a good place.
When they finally showed it to me, I saw episode two and how they used the background track with the people walking after a serious look at themselves and what the heck they were doing in life, which was a wonderful part of the scene. When the girl went into her trailer and laid down that was the first time you heard me singing.
I couldn’t imagine a better use of a song ever in a film or TV show than the way they used that. I think that has helped the song connect with so many people because they used it in such a nice way. It’s the kind of song that talks about how we’re all in this together. We’ve got a lot of choices in life and they’re all not gonna go the way that everybody tells they should go.
I have a granddaughter at MIT and she said, “Every time I come into this place to work the song is playing.” (laughs)
Rock Cellar: Being a part of the Brill Building songwriting community in the ‘60s, did that further inspire you as a writer to up your game?
Chip Taylor: They called it the Brill Building, and it’s okay that they do that. It’s a misnomer, really. The Brill Building was a kind of leftover show business writers sophisticated thing and they did have some cool writers there, like Hal David and Burt Bacharach and a couple of other cool writers. We were all friends.
The real building that was active was 1650 Broadway and songwriters like Gerry Goffin and Carole King and many others worked there. I remember always looking forward to hearing a Carole King demo; I was such a fan of hers. You couldn’t help it when you walked down the hallway at 1650 Broadway you would hear these different grooves coming out from the writing rooms and they were the coolest things going on. It was an uplifting place to walk through.
Being around that might have pushed me to get better as a writer a little bit, but I wasn’t a sophisticated guitar player. I had a fellow named Al Gorgoni who would play with me when I would do my little country demos.
When I wrote I kind of wanted to be by myself and just come up with a kind of groove that moved me. I wanted to be in a silent place to come up with some magic that felt new to me and that would give me a chill. I was always looking for that chill.
Rock Cellar: What’s the first great song you wrote that gave you that chill?
Chip Taylor: Maybe in the beginning when I was trying to impress my brothers at 12 years old I played a song called “Faded Blue” and that became the song they signed me with four years later at King Records. But I only recorded that song in a book retrospective; there was a little CD slipped into a book which includes my recording of that song.
That never saw the light of day at the time but I sing it with my brother and grand-kids once in a while. I like that song a lot. All of a sudden I wrote a song called “He Sits At My Table” and Willie Nelson recorded it and I remember loving that song.
Rock Cellar: “Wild Thing” is one of the classics in rock and roll history. What’s the back story behind writing that one?
Chip Taylor: It may not have been a complicated song, but you know when you got one like that, you’ve got something. I was asked to write a song for an artist named The Wild Ones, Gerry Granahan was producing. Gerry called me and said, “You’re known in the business for being a great country writer and I hear that you’re writing some very cool rock and roll songs. I have a group I’m cutting and I need a fourth song so I’d like you to send one over.”
I was so flattered that he asked me that instead of sending over one I’d already written, I said, “Let me see if I can write you something today.” I hung up the phone. I had a demo session scheduled at five o’clock to do a country song which I knew backwards and forwards. I started fooling around with the strum of “Wild Thing,” which is the magic of it. The strum from the kind who didn’t know how to play guitar and that’s me. I learned how to do it by doing it my own way and my own way came out to where I would strum it like that, which meant some of the strings were hitting the bottom of my thumb when I came up and it made a rhythmic kind of a motion when I paled it like that.
So I started this chorus out and it just felt very good to me. I knew I wanted to stop in the song and say something but I didn’t know what I wanted to say. It came time of the session and I called the engineer, Ron Johnsen, “Ron, can you turn the lights out when I get there and have my stool, mic and guitar set up.” So I get there and he has the lights out and I just started playing the chorus and I stopped where I wanted to stop and said what I wanted to say at that moment and envisioned a beautiful girl standing in front of me. I sang the song to that girl and then the song was over in four minutes and listened back and thought I really thought it was great.
Rock Cellar: There have been innumerable covers of “Wild Thing,” do you have a favorite?
Chip Taylor: I actually have three. The first is the version by The Troggs. My demo is the coolest demo and speaking of Ron Johnsen, he started playing something through his fingers as we were listening back, like somebody with a blade of grass, and it sounded very good to me and I said, “Ron, go in the studio, I want to overdub you doing that,” and I hummed him some notes and he did that. He was playing it on his hands. Like somebody playing a kazoo, he was blowing air into his hands and a sound would come out.
So we did that and I loved it and The Troggs thought that sound was an ocarina so they used an ocarina to do it, which I think became one of the most famous instrumentals in a rock song of all time. So I love the Troggs’ record because it was so much like mine.
I loved the boys and they were so humble in their approach to music and their feeling that there as something really magical to me about it. You talk about punk music, that’s the start of it.
The other cover I really liked was the one done by Jimi Hendrix. He heard The Troggs’ version. He told his girlfriend that he’d just heard a song that was his favorite song that he had ever heard. The next morning he was taking a shower and it came on the radio and he jumped out of the shower butt naked and said, “That’s the song I’m talking about!” He used to play it all the time, so his versions were wonderful because he had the same strum, the same thing that I do hitting the strings with the upstroke with my thumb in the same simple man’s way of playing the guitar.
So I loved his version and I also loved the version done by X, which was very true to the feel of it. They did a wonderful version and I believe X’s version of “Wild Thing” is the one they used in the film, Major League. So those are my three favorite versions, The Troggs, Jimi Hendrix and X.
Rock Cellar: Speaking of covers, Linda Ronstadt recently released a new album, Live in Hollywood, a show taped in 1980 which features her marvelous interpretation of a big hit song you wrote, “I Can’t Let Go.” It also appeared on her album Mad Love. What inspired that song?
Chip Taylor: I like Linda’s version of the song. The story of that is very interesting. Even though I’d been a loner in the business, I went home to my family, studied my horses and came in to write songs and kind of kept to myself, the guitar player that I used to play on my demos, Al Gorgoni, was co-producing a girl singer name Evie Sands who we loved.
She was the hard luck girl of the ‘60s. She was Dusty Springfield’s favorite singer and we loved working with her. One day we were trying to write a song for Evie and I wasn’t liking anything that Al was coming up with and he wasn’t liking anything that I was coming up with, which is the reason I mainly wrote by myself because I don’t want to go through that kind of pain.
So we parted company and about 15-20 minutes later I went looking for him ‘cause I didn’t want him to feel bad and he was in his space. I said, “Al, are you alright?” And he said, “Yeah, I’m alright.” “Well, did you come up with anything?” and he said, “Yeah, but you’re not gonna like it.” Then he said, “Well, what about you?”
And I said, “Yeah, I did. C’mon let’s try it again.” So we went into a room together and I heard what he did and I liked it and he heard what I did and he liked it. He said, “Which one should we work on?” I said, “Let’s put them together” and that’s what we did. That’s how “I Can’t Let Go” was written, I wrote the verses and he wrote the choruses. Al and I were happy with it. We recorded it with Evie. We did some records with Evie that were wonderful. For example, she did the first version of “Angel Of The Morning” and the company went bankrupt the week it was shipped so she had no chance to have a hit with it. Half a year, a year later, Chips Moman and Tommy Cogbill asked if I would mind if they recorded it and I said okay. So the hoist came from Merilee Rush and Juice Newton, but Evie had the magic one on that.
Rock Cellar: You worked with an unlikely collaborator on a hard rock song, Ace Frehley of KISS, with “Rock Soldiers.” How did that partnership eventuate?
Chip Taylor: Ace used to record at a studio that I owned part of in White Plains, New York. Ace was a nice guy that came by and did some of his private work there. My partner there, Crazy Joe Renda, who was running the studio would tell me, “Ace says hello and he would love to wrote a song with you,” and he told me he had a new album coming out.
So one day before I went over to the studio I started fooling around with a chord progression and some words and left some space in case he wanted to jump in and write a couple of lines. It was based on some kind of accident Ace had where he almost got killed and almost killed somebody else. He told me that story once and “Rock Soldiers” is based around that. He’s a very nice guy, I liked doing it with him. He’s one of those guys that does things with a total spirit and doesn’t let his brain get in the middle of everything. We worked on it for a couple of days and that was it.
Rock Cellar: As a celebrated songwriter with 50+ years experience, what’s your take on the state of music/songwriting today in 2019?
Chip Taylor: I can listen to what I want to listen to, just as we all could when we were growing up. We love music, we lived it, it was part of us. We could turn away from what we didn’t like on the radio, but we could also turn the dial and hear something we did like, like when Alan Freed came on, or before that I listened to the Motorola radio to hear anything ‘cause you couldn’t hear any good country music in New York, no blues music in New York, If I could get some of that off the Motorola radio, that was my whole thing.
But these days if I’m driving in my car with the grand kids, their mother and father sing along to what the kids are listening to and they have a camaraderie with that stuff.
And here I am, the outsider wishing that my grandkids would like to hear a song by someone like John Prine or Townes Van Zandt or one of the great Gerry Goffin/Carole King songs. They don’t get that stuff. They listen to people who make beats.
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