If you’ve ever wondered how Chip Taylor, the songwriter whose hits include “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning” and whose songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Peggy Lee, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, and the Hollies wound up pursuing a career as a country performer, don’t worry. With the release of his latest album, Yonkers NY, he takes you back to the start of his life and explains it in a collection of songs with the patented Chip Taylor charm and grace.
Yonkers NY is a depiction of a fairly normal childhood spent in the suburbs of New York City with loving parents and two older brothers who only tormented young Chip in the ways older brothers always do. The family was subtly different from its grey-flannel-suit-wearing suburban neighbors in that the elder Taylor was a golf pro, not a businessman commuter (although he managed to convince his youngest son for years that he was also an FBI agent), as well as a high-stakes gambler on occasion.
Chip’s parents weren’t your normal uptight suburban family. “My dad and mom would let me stay up late to listen to the radio because it was important to me. It was okay to break the rules, as long as we broke them when we were following our passions; they were okay with that. They listened to what we were interested in. Barry was into rocks and the mountains right away, and I was listening to music and telling my brothers about that and Jon was doing dialects and little performances. It was already ingrained in us; we were old hands when it came time to do what we were going to do.”
Chip tells the story of his discovering his passions in eleven brilliantly crafted songs on Yonkers NY, introducing the family in the album’s first song, “Barry, Go On,” with the subject being the three Voight kids, Barry (now a renowned vulcanologist), Jonny (actor Jon Voight) and Jamie (James Voight, Taylor’s birth-name). “Charcoal Sky” introduces us to trains, then as now an essential way of getting around in suburban New York, while “Gin Rummy Rules” introduces young Jamie to mathematics as he sits with his father at the game he attends in nearby Mount Vernon three nights a week.
“Hey Jonny” turns the story in a new direction as Jamie and his older brother discover rock and roll as Bill Haley rocks the silver screen: “Hey Jonny, did you feel that movie?” Chip certainly did, and it changed his life, setting him on the path he’s still following. For much of the 1960s, he and the band he put together with his friend Greg Gwardyak in Yonkers played and recorded country music until a chance recording of one of Chip’s songs by Willie Nelson made him realize that he didn’t have to beat himself up on the road, but could make good money writing songs for other people. “Without Horses” tells the tale of another passion: gambling on horse races, something he’s always been very good at. All through the 1960s he’d place bets with his bookie (who at one point was Meyer Lansky) and then go to work writing songs, picking up his winnings at the end of the day.
“No Dice” would seem to continue the gambling theme, but it’s actually about teen romance, which was also part of a young man’s life, while “Bastard Brothers” is an affectionate swipe at his siblings who got tired of hearing Jamie saw away at a violin and begged their parents to get him another instrument for Christmas. He got a ukulele, which immediately stole his heart and led to his acquiring a guitar not much later. His life could have been much different if it weren’t for his bastard brothers! “Piece of the Sky” is the only non-autobiographical song here, a fantasy of having a band with Janis Joplin and selling six million records. Or maybe it is autobiographical, since what musician doesn’t have similar fantasies?
“Saw Mill River Road,” though, is all true details: Taylor’s first professional band, with Gwardyak, came together in Yonkers and was called the Town and Country Brothers. The competition was the Hudson Valley Boys, who had a long-standing Friday night gig at a place called the Chat & Chew in Ardsley, New York, and would call Chip to the stage every time he went to see them so he could sing a couple of numbers. “Yonkers Girls” is a tribute to the fans the band had, and generally to the girls from the towns in the area, delivered with good humor and a lot of affection.
And, finally, there’s “Yonkers, NY,” ending the song-cycle with a look back at what became of the people and places of Taylor’s childhood, all mixed together the way fifty-year-old memories get, and wrapping up the story of an American childhood and adolescence.
Taylor got out of Yonkers when Greg Gwardyak got the Town and Country Brothers a record deal. “I was signed to King Records at 15 because Greg was so passionate about these demos that we’d made that he walked the street in New York until he got us a deal. It was about passion. I could say I wanted to be in the music business, but it was because Greg was walking the streets that I actually got into it.”
Eventually, Taylor gave up performing for songwriting, than took up performing again in the 1970s, when he recorded three highly-regarded albums for Warner Bros. When they failed to sell enough to impress the company (although they created a cult following both in the United States and Europe which has only grown over the years), Taylor retired to gamble full-time. In 1993, he felt the old itch and un-retired, and in 2001 he met fiddler Carrie Rodriguez at the South by Southwest event in Austin, Texas, initiating a creative partnership that would catapult both to the upper ranks of Americana music and see them perform all over the world. The two parted ways in 2006 so that Rodriguez could concentrate on her solo career, but Taylor has continued, releasing Songs from a Dutch Tour in 2008, and, now, Yonkers NY.
All in all, the songs on Yonkers NY bear out what Chip Taylor has to say about songwriting generally. “I like to feel things. My whole life has been governed by chills, to be able to experience something in silence without a lot of talk around you. To hear the radio late at night. These days I sit here in the morning, with a couple of guitars, a Martin 0018 and a D-25 Gibson a few feet away and I can just sit here and not listen to anything except the breeze blowing outside. I’ve got my minidisc player so that if a chill comes over me I can record it immediately. I couldn’t love my life any more. The thing is to create every day. I just wait for the chill and leave the crafting ‘til the end. The magic has to be there and often times it comes without syllables, just sounds of things and chords and melody. And you let that flow out of you.”
That’s what he’s done on Yonkers NY, with his superb band, consisting of John Platania, electric guitar; Greg Leisz, steel guitar, dobro, and mandolin; Tony Mercadante, electric bass; Seth Farber, piano and accordion; Kendel Carson, fiddle; and Tony Leone, drums.
Yonkers NY is being released by Train Wreck Records on September 29th in a deluxe package with a 35-page book designed by Andy Taray. The book is filled with photographs of the Voight family and, of course, Yonkers itself, and also contains lyrics to all the songs, as well as Taylor’s commentary on them. The album will contain two discs, one of which will have the full cycle, including Taylor’s spoken material, in which he tells stories and shares memories of this period of his life, the second of which will contain edited versions, with just the songs. The chills are added at no extra cost.