Story Book Children
Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez hit the jackpot
When Chip Taylor wrote "Storybook Children" in the mid-Sixties, there was no way of knowing it would become a catalyst for his career resurgence in the next millennium. The song, co-authored and sung by Billy Vera with Judy Clay, charted high, and the pair became the first interracial couple to do so. The tune's success forged another link in Taylor's astonishing chain of hits that included garage rock anthem "Wild Thing."
Some 35 years after "Storybook Children" hit the charts, Taylor decided to try the duet in his live shows as a way of introducing a new band member, violinist Carrie Rodriguez.
"It was the first show we did in Holland," recounts Taylor. "My show is divided into two parts. The first half, she didn't sing, but everyone watched her play fiddle and loved her. I could see a lot of eyes on her.
"For 'Storybook Children,' I introduced it as the first interracial hit by the first interracial couple to play the Apollo Theater. Then I started to sing, 'You've got your world and I've got mine, and it's a shame.'
"Carrie wandered over to the microphone and sang, 'Two grown up worlds that could never be the same. ...'
"The audience erupted. The place went nuts when she sang those words. We couldn't get to the chorus. We had to start again."
For Rodriguez, it was the first time the spotlight has truly shone on her. Still, she remembers the moment a little differently.
"The word that comes to mind is 'relief,'" laughs Rodriguez, sitting with Taylor at South Congress eatery El Sol y La Luna. "Relief that they didn't boo and clapped instead. I was so insecure, because I hadn't really sung backup vocals, either. The moment was terrifying. A lot of the energy was positive nervousness.
"But the fact that I did it and everyone smiled back was like, 'Oh! Wow. I guess it's OK to do this.' I never got nervous again about playing violin in front of people."
Rodriguez is 24, the daughter of a mother who loved classical music and David Rodriguez, one of Austin's most accomplished singer-songwriters of the Eighties. She started taking violin lessons at age 5 and began performing locally with her father at Chicago House and La Zona Rosa when she was 12.
She continued her music studies, trained classically, and attended a conservatory. She also graduated with honors from the Berklee College of Music in Boston and played with everything from girl groups to country dance-hall bands. At 24, Rodriguez stands on the edge of incipient fame with a man whose life's work defines the art of songwriting.
But Chip Taylor, whose songs have been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Ike & Tina Turner, Emmylou Harris, Lita Ford, Johnny Cash, and Kermit the Frog, traveled a long, circuitous route from his Sixties songwriting heyday. So circuitous that by 1979, collecting royalty checks was as close as he came to composing.
You see, Taylor's talent wasn't confined to songwriting. The man born James Wesley Voight in Yonkers, N.Y., was the third son of a professional golfer and a schoolteacher. One brother is a respected geologist and the other, Jon, is an Academy Award-winning actor. Small wonder Taylor's drive to succeed was as strong as it is.
And succeed he did. Taylor's band was the only white act signed by King Records. He worked as a songwriter in the Brill Building in its heyday, and his songs were recorded by a staggering array of Sixties artists: the Hollies, Barbara Lewis, the Troggs, the Pozo-Seco Singers, and Janis Joplin. By the Seventies, his own efforts at recording tanked, and he'd been dropped by labels that had scored hits with his songs. The irony was that his work was one of the blueprints for the nascent progressive country scene, and he was one of the few purveyors of that scene who was accepted by Nashville.
Yet, another talent lay within Chip Taylor, one a little more reckless: He knew numbers. Not simply how to add them, but how to pick them. Songwriting provided him the means to gamble when he was flush, and he returned to the pastime when the music business flatlined for him. It wasn't a casual return, either. With more than a bit of gambler's luck at blackjack, he was banned from major casinos in Atlantic City and many in Las Vegas. Music seemed another lifetime.
Taylor shifted from gaming tables in casinos to handicapping thoroughbred races, for which he demonstrated an equal affinity: The Long Island Off Track Betting Parlor provided Taylor and partner Ernie Dahlman their own room, complete with televised replay and a personal teller. It was a dream profession for a man who had once lived another kind of dream.
Then came the nightmare.
In 1995, Taylor's mother took ill. He turned his energy from betting to caring for her. He picked up his guitar again, this time for someone else -- the one person who'd always supported his muse and music. The darkness of his mother's death ignited a spark in him that caught fire with music. Chip Taylor turned his back on the casinos and returned to clubs.
The second wind blew strong and hard. He recorded five critically acclaimed albums between 1996 and 2001, including Hit Man, The Living Room Tapes, The London Sessions Bootleg, and Black and Blue America. The latter featured Lucinda Williams, John Prine, and Guy Clark, who gave it the cachet it deserved. Chip Taylor was once again in high gear.
By anyone's standards, Taylor's return has been nothing if not prolific, and that doesn't even include his recent release with Rodriguez on Austin's TMG/Lone Star label, Let's Leave This Town. His songwriting ability is prodigious, and his compositions have a rare durability: Witness Taylor's "Angel of the Morning."
The song was first released with dueling versions by Merrilee Rush and Evie Sands in the late Sixties. Juice Newton had a round with it in the Eighties, and then the Pretenders. Most recently, Jamaican rapper Shaggy took his version of "Angel" to No. 1 in 2001, giving Taylor the distinction of having the longest span of No. 1 hits in music history.
And then there's "Wild Thing." The song makes your heart sing. It makes everything groovy. The Troggs performed the definitive version, but Jimi Hendrix made it one of his showstoppers. Every garage band knew it, and it was regularly banned at junior high sock hops for inciting lewd dancing. It remains the best example of Taylor's timeless songwriting.
Credentials such as his made Taylor a natural for South by Southwest, and in the spring of last year, the songwriter was knocking around the conference with his friend, Van Morrison sideman John Platania. The two stopped into Cheapo Discs for an in-store set by Taylor's friend, bassist Richard Price, who was backing mountain musician Hayseed.
Carrie Rodriguez was also performing with Hayseed that afternoon. When the young woman with a head full of dark corkscrew curls, deep amber eyes, and the face of a renaissance Madonna rested her sculpted chin on her violin, she plucked the strings of Taylor's musical heart.
"After the gig, I called her," recalls Taylor. "I said, 'Carrie, do you want to come tour Sweden with me?' and she said yes. I hung up and thought, 'What am I thinking?' So I called her back and said, 'Carrie, do you want to play with me from now on?' She said she would, and it evolved from there."
Chemistry, but no biology. Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez only sing like lovers, one of those rare, magical meetings of intergenerational minds. It's a partnership beautifully born out on Let's Leave This Town, which is breaking onto Americana charts everywhere.
The 12 songs on Let's Leave This Town are classic Chip Taylor, quality country-folk tunes that evoke the heart, the home, and the ever-elusive state of happiness. Songs like "His Eyes" tell simple stories with words and music that linger long after the CD stops spinning. Others, like the burgeoning Austin-centric hit "Sweet Tequila Blues" and "Say Little Darlin'" mix humor with sentiment. Taylor's done it again.
In fact, the pair, fresh off a trans-Atlantic flight, did it again, this time in England where the "little Texas girl with big things on her mind" had another eye-opening experience.
"We played 'Wild Thing' with Reg Presley of the Troggs on Tops of the Pops!" enthuses Rodriguez. Her face glows with the memory.
And hers is a face to watch. Taylor's gamble has already paid off; he has bet on a winner with Carrie Rodriguez. She's the queen of hearts with a Texas accent. And Chip Taylor? He's the jack of diamonds with a King Midas touch.