To say that singer/songwriter Chip Taylor — who gave us Wild Thing, Angel of the Morning and Try — comes from an accomplished family is an understatement.
His brother is Hollywood actor Jon Voight, and his niece is actor, filmmaker and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie. That much is fairly well known.
What most people might not realize is that Taylor’s father was a highly talented golf pro, Taylor’s daughter is dean of the Yale University School of Law, and his oldest brother, Barry Voight, is the renowned geologist who invented the scientific formula to predict volcano eruptions.
“He’s the smartest one of us all,” said a chuckling Taylor, who will perform, along with Van Morrison guitarist John Platania, on Thursday, Oct. 9, at the Elks Lodge in Red Deer.
The 74-year-old singer/songwriter produced hits for The Troggs, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Juice Newton among others.
But he might have enjoyed success in a number of different careers — and in fact, did.
After losing interest in the music industry’s formulaic approach, Taylor became a professional gambler in the 1980s. He said he liked the challenge and was good at it — too good. He was eventually banned from Atlantic City casinos, along with other card counters, including the famous MIT blackjack team.
“They’d assign someone to me. It got so that as soon as I’d raise my bet, they shuffled the cards,” he recalled.
Taylor then became an expert at predicting wins at the horse track, taking into account such details as wind velocity, fractional intervals during races, track soil conditions and the kind of shoes the horses wore. “You have to use creative and scientific skills to be a good horse race handicapper,” said Taylor.
But he returned to music about 20 years ago, after writing a song at his dying mother’s bedside. “She was so happy to hear me play … after two weeks of playing for her, I thought about how much I loved performing for people and what a beautiful experience that was, and how I’d never have that if I didn’t stop gambling. You can’t do both.”
When he quit playing the horses, he pledged to put out the kind of records he wanted to make — which he’s been doing ever since.
Taylor’s latest carefully crafted tunes are from a three-disc The Little Prayer Trilogy — an album full of the kind of reflective songs that couldn’t have been written by a much younger man.
They include Sleep With Open Windows, which Taylor recorded as a duet with Lucinda Williams. The song awash with longing was inspired by a female inmate he met during one of his regular performance tours of penitentiaries in Sweden.
“She told me the thing she misses most was sleeping with the window open,” said Taylor, who began doing prison tours shortly after restarting his music career. (His Swedish promoter also worked as a prison guard and got the ball rolling.)
Taylor said he likes the blunt honesty of inmates and the sense they give him “that we’re all in this together. … I know some of them did some terrible things, but I never met any of them that I didn’t feel that there was a lot of goodness in them.”
While Taylor has a social conscience, it’s never allowed to overtly creep into his songwriting, he said, lest his tunes begin to sound like they are instructing people on how to live their lives.
“I’m a stream of consciousness writer. My songwriting comes from my emotions. Once in a while I write about (issues), but I don’t think that’s the best of me.”
His song Hold It Right There describes his creative process: “You can’t really think until you hold it right there,” say the lyrics. You let the thought go “back in space and be its own thing,” until it comes back again.
Taylor was born in Yonkers, N.Y., and named James Wesley Voight.
His mother gave him a violin when he was five or six years old. He was learning to play it until his older brothers got tired of listening to his squeaks and conspired to give him a ukulele for Christmas.
Taylor switched to the new instrument and later took up the guitar. “My mother never forgave my brothers for this — and she told them so on her deathbed,” recalled the singer, who never became the violinist his mom envisioned, but did make huge inroads in popular music.
Inspired by the Ink Spots, Bing Crosby and Delta blues records he heard around the house, Taylor began breaking into the music biz in the early 1960s. “I was blessed to be signed (to King Records), but I wasn’t selling enough, so I began selling my songs to other people.”
Taylor had written several successful country songs when someone asked if he could write for rock ’n’ roll. “I said ‘Let me have a day,’ and (Wild Thing) is what came out.”
The song was recorded by Christopher Jordan and The Wild Ones in 1965, but didn’t become a huge until The Troggs made it a hit single in 1966 and Hendrix performed it live in 1967. “The Troggs sang it exactly the way I wrote it, then Jimi Hendrix also sang that version,” he called.
At around the same time, Joplin performed Taylor’s tune Try (Just a Little Bit Harder) and a number of artists (including The Troggs and later Juice Newton) recorded his Any Way That You Want Me.
Waylon Jennings ran with his Sweet Dream Woman, and Taylor’s Son of a Rotten Gambler was recorded by EmmyLou Harris, the Hollies and Anne Murray.
His other big hit, Angel of the Morning, was recorded by various artists, including Merrilee Rush, Juice Newton, Nina Simone, Olivia Newton-John, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, and Dusty Springfield.
His tunes were recorded by Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Ike and Tina Turner, Johnny Cash, Kermit the Frog and many others.
Taylor, who recently remarried his first wife after they were divorced for many years, has children and grandchildren. He feels fortunate in life — although he’s no longer in touch with his niece, Jolie.
“When she was growing up … I always felt close to Angie, and her mom used to say she felt very close to me. But since she’s done all these unbelievable, crazy, wonderful things, we don’t really have contact anymore.”
Taylor looks forward to touring once again with his guitarist buddy Platania, whom he managed to wrestle away from his other gig with Van Morrison. “He’s played on Moondance and Domino and all these things, and toured with them. (Platania) has always shared his time with Van and me and I’ve had to fight for my space,” he added, with a laugh.
“I’ve never been to Red Deer before, but I love playing in Alberta,” said Taylor, who promised to deliver some of his old country and rock hits, as well as some newer selections at this fundraising concert for the Central Music Festival Society.
Tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $28 in advance from www.centralmusicfest.com or $35 at the door.