Generally Eclectic Review

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Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

“Stepson of the Blues: A Chicago Song of Survival”” by Larry Hill Taylor with Bonni McKeown (Peaceful Patriot Press)

Larry Hill Taylor is the stepson of the late Eddie Taylor, who served as second guitarist for John Lee Hooker, but made an even more significant impact as the architect of the “Jimmy Reed Sound”, one of the most influential and commercially successful blues styles of the 1950’s/60’s and beyond. Eddie Taylor later recorded under his own name, but never achieved a level of stardom commensurate with his musical importance. The Taylor family is a multi-talented one, as Taylor’s wife, Vera (Larry’s mother), was a well-regarded singer, Larry himself is a drummer/singer/bandleader of some repute, while his brother Eddie Jr. and sister Demetria are also known on the Chicago blues scene.

On the surface, none of this would appear to make Larry Taylor’s life story so momentous that it would justify the publication of his autobiography. The history of Eddie Taylor and Jimmy Reed would be more likely to attract casual readers than that of Eddie’s stepson. But Larry Taylor has a compelling story to tell - several of them, as a matter of fact. This book, co-authored by Larry’s former manager, Bonnie McKeown, herself a blues pianist who has logged time in the Chicago clubs, is - when all is said and done - part autobiography, part diatribe. Larry Taylor feels misused by the blues establishment, he feels his fellow black Chicago blues musicians have been misused, indeed he feels that black blues musicians in general have been dealt a dirty deal. And he’s angry enough to try to do something about it, by laying his own career and reputation on the line to shout out to the world that something extremely unfair has going on in the world of blues for a long time, and the situation is not getting any better.

The first section of the book is more about his Mississippi family origins, his upbringing in Chicago, his various adventures and misadventures, his musical education, etc. In one sense, his childhood reads rather like you might expect a fairly typical Mississippi-rooted, urban ghetto childhood in the world of the blues to read. But of course, no one’s life is ever really as typical as anyone else’s. Taylor’s youth was enlivened by the presence of some of the all-time greats of the blues, who regularly visited his parents in their home, thanks to Eddie Sr.’s vaunted position among the blues royalty of his day. Young Larry picked up tips and lessons from the greats, and kept their words of wisdom to heart, while also getting to see them in their less public moments.

Larry’s life begins to take a less stereotypical turn toward his future career as a bluesman, when he joins a neighborhood street gang. This may well be a part of many modern-day blues musicians’ background, but it’s one which has become so associated with hip-hop in the outsider’s eye - of course, there was no hip-hop when Taylor joined up in the 1960’s - that it takes the reader by surprise. Soon Taylor finds himself involved with martyred Black Panther activist Fred Hampton, and with the Nation of Islam, again not a “typical” blues background, but one which helped instill a particular sense of right vs. wrong into the young Larry Taylor.

Then his life falls apart, when he is falsely accused of being a child molester, which leads to a horrifying round of legal injustices, incarceration in a veritable hell-hole of a prison, and intrusive psychological evaluations which led to some pretty harrowing treatment. The fact that the Taylor family was complicit in Larry’s imprisonment - perhaps feeling he could simply be scared straight, without any thought of how damaging his experiences would be - is a blotch on Eddie and Vera Taylor’s reputations.

Larry’s story doesn’t get any prettier once he gets out of a prison. As he tries to find steady work in the low-paying, jealousy-ridden, dishonestly-run Chicago blues clubs, he suffers through problems with women and develops a serious hard-drug addiction which he has a great deal of trouble shaking to this day. He also finds himself hounded by what he assumes to be FBI spies, seemingly lurking around every corner. Quite honestly, there are times when this comes across as a paranoid obsession, but it’s his life, and I can’t say he’s mistaken or lying.

But while the second half of the book covers these and other personal subjects, what really sticks with the reader in the latter stages of the book is Taylor’s full-throttle expose of the current blues scene. We learn that even in Chicago blues clubs which, judging by the city’s reputation, one would expect to be dominated by hard-core African-American blues musicians, white musicians - make that white rock musicians posing as blues musicians - often get the best-paying jobs, except of course for a handful of long-established superstars such as Buddy Guy and B.B. King. Taylor points out in various contexts that what black fans listen to and call blues is a very different thing from what white fans call blues. Black blues fans include what was known in the 1960’s as “soul music” as part of their steady diet, whereas white blues fans eschew “soul-blues” and prefer rock-oriented music which may or may not have solid roots in the blues. Even a cursory observation of the Southern Chitlin’ Circuit soul-blues sales charts vis-a-vis the playlists of the typical white DJ posting to Yahoo’s blues-dj list will support this contention. This dichotomy severely impacts black blues musicians who try to make a living in areas where the better-paying clubs cater to white fans, and has essentially left us with two competing musical scenes, both known as “blues”, one white, one black.

Taylor goes on to castigate the blues establishment as a whole, as represented by the Blues Foundation (which tellingly took W. C. Handy’s name off their long-established annual awards) and by many of the people who post on the Internet’s often-controversial BLUES-L listserv (where Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore are thought by many to have been the Kings of The Blues). Some blues fans may consider Taylor’s screed to be sour grapes, the rantings of an artist who has failed to crack the upper reaches of blues stardom and has become embittered as a result. However, I know from my own experiences (as a white college professor in his 60’s, so race, age, and position are not necessarily factors; by comparison, Larry Taylor is 55 years old) that the blues scene can be very difficult for anyone to crack. As someone who has lectured on blues, written about blues for some 40 years, and taught university-level courses on blues, I am still totally lacking in credibility among Western New York blues fans. The latter tend to gravitate toward what I call “biker bar” blues, the hard-core audience for which can be extremely narrow-minded about what they will accept or reject as blues, and who often show themselves to be quite intolerant of opinions on this subject that differ from their own.. My perspective on the matter comes, of course, from a very different angle than Larry Taylor’s, and unlike him I don’t need to depend on blues as my source of income, but I can easily understand where he’s coming from. I don’t blame him at all for being frustrated, and I applaud his boldness for taking a strong, if unpopular stance on this subject.

Of course, the people who most need to read this book and think seriously about what he has to say will probably ignore it. ‘Twas ever thus. So many negative things have happened in Larry Taylor’s life that the book simply cannot be a pleasant read, something light to skim over without giving it a second thought. But in the end, his faith in Islam (which he discusses in an Appendix) serves to see him through. This is, after all, a tale of survival. I hope he gets the right people to listen.

More information on the book, including ordering information, as well as a sample of Larry Taylor’s music,may be found at

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