There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Vernon Taylor lives halfway up a mountain in rural Maryland, back off a gravel road that likes to do the steering for automobiles. His daily visitors include deer and black bears, as well as wild turkeys, which occasionally crowd up to his porch. It’s not exactly Memphis, where, 45 years ago, Taylor cut records at Sun Studios. But on cool, wet nights, Taylor can still get FM radio from Tennessee.
Taylor built his mountain bungalow in 1970 with the help of his wife and unofficial publicist, Brenda Taylor. Now they’re thinking of moving out. “We were the youngest in the neighborhood, and now, all of a sudden, we’re the oldest,” says Taylor, 65. “Hagerstown used to be a big music town, but then MADD came in, and it started dying. Karaoke is taking over, and it’s horrible….I can’t stand it.”
Not that it really matters to Taylor’s career. He doesn’t have a band anymore, and he denies that he was ever a big deal in the music scene. “I’m not a real guitar player,” he says. “But I used to hang out with some real guitar players, and maybe some of it rubbed off, you know what I mean?”
Even so, Taylor is doing more musically than he has since quitting the business in the early ’70s. Over the past few years, he’s put out two CDs, headlined at England’s Hemsby Rock ‘n’ Roll Weekender, and performed at several smaller-scale stateside festivals, including 2000’s Rockabilly Rebel Weekend in Indianapolis and 2002’s Rockin’ 50’s Fest in Green Bay, Wis.
There’s a scroll in Taylor’s basement proclaiming his membership in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. There are also photos: Taylor with Danny and the Juniors at D.C.’s old Casino Royal, Taylor with Johnny Cash’s band in Jackson, Tenn. There’s Taylor’s old manager, Don Owens, smiling in his car, not too long before he fell asleep at the wheel and hit a tree in 1963. And there’s a poster of guitarist Danny Gatton, whom Taylor regards as “the best.” Gatton shot himself in 1994.
“I’ve always said I’m glad I didn’t get a big hit record,” says Taylor, “Because if I did, I probably wouldn’t have survived it.”
Taylor’s childhood was similar to those of many early rock ‘n’ rollers: He grew up on a Montgomery County truck farm and received both spiritual and musical education in his family’s Primitive Baptist church. He first started playing music around age 4, with a cigar-box-impaled-on-a-broom-handle whatsit. He moved on to a harmonica, a ukulele, his brother’s guitar, and, finally, to a 1955 Martin D-28 acoustic, which he still owns.
“I wasn’t very popular at school,” says Taylor. “There was a gang of us non-sports-figuresI guess you’d call us nerds todayand we’d hang out in the shrubbery somewhere and smoke cigarettes and talk about music.” Shrub talk turned to serious activity as Taylor and his friends formed their first band, the Nighthawks.
Named after a country-western radio DJ, the Nighthawks devastated audiences at lawn parties, sock hops, and USO shows. Taylor began to trust in his singing abilityand in the raw power of rockabilly. “We hopped up any tune we could get our hands oncountry, pop, whatever,” he says. “I didn’t know what the heck we were playing. All I knew, it was boogie-woogie, stompin’ stuff, and we had a good time.”
Despite his savage guitar licks and songs about fast women and cars, Taylor’s stage persona remained that of a modest Baptist boy. He had simple rules for performance, which mirrored his rules for living: “Don’t use foul language, try to look as professional as possible, and…try to be one of the guys and not holier-than-thou.” His respect for his audiences, along with a great talent for ballad singing, gained Taylor a large following in the dance halls around D.C. By 1957, he had left the Nighthawks and formed Vernon Taylor and the Southerners, managed by Owens.
That same year, Taylor opened for Mac Wiseman at a Beltsville fire hall. He gave the bluegrass savant such a hard act to follow that Wiseman invited him to visit Dot Records in Nashville. The results were two Dot singles, “Losing Game” and “Why Must You Leave Me,” featuring Elvis’ vocal group, the Jordanaires. Owens soon maneuvered Taylor onto American Bandstand, where he made enough of an impression on Sam Phillips that Phillips sent producer Jack Clement to seduce Taylor into recording for Sun.
Taylor followed Clement to Memphis in 1958, but he had his reservations. He wasn’t sure he was good enough to record on the same label as Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley. “I didn’t really have the drive and want to do it like so many of them did,” he says. “I really wasn’t looking to sell a million records….I just wanted to make a comfortable living so I could raise a family.”
Still, he had an undeniable gift for performance. “Vernon seemed to be at ease no matter where he was playing, whether it be at an old-age home with 10 people or an arena with 1,000 people,” says Ric Nelson, a WETA-FM broadcast technician. Owens hired Nelson to play dobro for his other stars, Patsy Cline and Luke Gordon, when Taylor stole Owens’ regular backup musicians for out-of-state shows. “He could identify with the crowd, pull them all together,” says Nelson. “It’s just a talent he has.”
Taylor decided he might as well give Sun a shot. He cut two singles, “Today Is a Blue Day” and a cover of Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train.” He then left Memphis for a tour through the Midwest and along the East Coast.
Though Taylor, who spent his childhood rolling sod and painting houses, has never been averse to hard work, self-promotion just didn’t fit his definition of making a living. “It was exciting, but it was also grueling and boring,” he says. Even worse, the pressure was killing his love for performing.
“There were many times I didn’t want to be doing it,” says Taylor. He was fine as long as he played regionally, but his Sun records threw him into a whole other game. The nationthe worldwas watching his career. Taylor had a crisis of confidence. “There was so much hype in the media on my first two releases,” he says, “most of which I didn’t feel I could live up to.”
So in 1960, Taylor quit touring, settled in Wheaton, took a job as a printer’s apprentice, and started playing with a band that performed in cocktail lounges and country-music clubs in Washington, living as if he had never had a career with Phillips. “I did it mostly for the extra income,” he says. “The Vernon Taylor thing didn’t come up. I was quiet about that.”
Taylor made a quiet living at his music for more than a decade, somehow surviving even as his brand of primitive rock ‘n’ roll was eclipsed by another cultural revolution in the ’60s. He stuck it out until 1971, when he decided to hang up his guitar and concentrate on his day job. “A touch of reality set in,” he says. “I thought, I don’t want to be playing beer joints when I’m 40. I want more out of life.”
It’s strange, then, that Taylor should be found in a smoky beer joint in 2003. Or at least in something close: Here he is, in herringbone sport coat, beetle-black boots, and combed-back hair, performing in the latest installment of Bop ‘n’ Bowl at the Falls Church Bowling Center. It’s a cold Saturday night in late March, and Taylor and the Bop ‘n’ Bowl backup band, ’52 Pickup, stand under dim lights in their patch of carpet. Sharing their “stage” are gum-ball dispensers and a flaccid “Happy Birthday” banner.
Taylor’s a little out of practice, having spent the greater part of the last quarter-century melting lead pigs, operating Linotype machines, and working quality control at a book manufacturer. “I’m known for playing it loose,” he says in his rock-slide voice. The 15 or so people gathered at the stage absorb this truism, enraptured, even as the duckpin bowlers keep hurling their weird little balls down the alleys.
Somebody shouts, “Red Cadillac!” “Well, I’m not prepared to do that,” replies Taylor. “But I got one for you that Sam Phillips insisted on me recording.” He veers into “Mystery Train.” His fingers tear up and down the strings of his Epiphone electric, and he shakes the hapless instrument as if it were a muscular snake he was trying to subdue.
In this sparsely populated bowling alley, it’s as if Taylor is starting out all over again. His feet certainly don’t betray any hint of old age: They pound the floor like jackhammers. Taylor finishes his set with “I’m So Lonely,” but, perhaps sensing the depressing implications of such a choice, throws in an encore of “Donna Lee” before finally unplugging his guitar.
Since 1971, Taylor has lived the life he always wanted. He and Brenda worked like dogs, raised children, and went to PTA meetings. He played one show, a corporate Christmas party, in 16 years. Then, in 1987, a journalist told him that one of his unreleased recordings for Sun, “Your Lovin’ Man,” was causing a ruckus in Europe. “At the time, I didn’t even remember recording or writing it,” he says after the show. “I denied a few things when I went over [to England] in 1995, because I didn’t remember. After a while, lights started coming on.”
There was a Vernon Taylor riot going on overseas, and, with his career and family concerns settled, Taylor didn’t have as much hesitation about diving into the fray as he did in 1958. He made the trip to play Hemsby in 1995. Later that year, the German-based Eagle Records slapped all of Taylor’s Sun and Dot Records takes onto the CD There’s Only One…Your Lovin’ Man. And in 1999, he recorded a new album, Daddy’s Rockin’, for New Jersey-based Run Wild Records. Now Taylor is chugging along on a second wind, harboring just a sliver of regret for not having documented his early celebrity better: “I don’t have a scrapbook,” he says. “I got pictures hanging up on the wall.”
Taylor’s aware that his long musical truancy has set him back, but he says he may soon cut another single. After all, Owens always said that Taylor was going to be another Elvis Presley, and Taylor certainly has enough energy to make the prophecy seem attainable. Half-seriously, he sometimes lets himself hope that his one-man rockabilly revival might even edge out the beat-heavy pop music that’s so popular these days.
“Hopefully, the next time when I pull up to a stoplight, I won’t hear boom boom boom. There’s not a note in that,” he says. “[Other musicians] do what they like, what they believe in, and I appreciate that. But I have to do what I like. And what I like is roots music, period.” CP