Melvin Taylor Interview - Anonimity With Style

As far as the patrons of a Windy City watering hole called Rosas Lounge are concerned, there are really three things in life that you can bank on: death, taxes, and Melvin Taylor on Tuesday night. Unless he's out of town on a short string of U.S. club dates or busy hopping around Europe, he'll most likely be there, dazzling the locals with his monstrous fretboard.

But first, a word of warning: The tough Chicago neighborhood in which Rosas sits isn't exactly Shangri-la, and Taylor recommends that you take a taxi if you're coming over. But don't worry about that too much, he explains. Once you get inside, nobody's gonna bother you there, cause they know we'll barbecue their ass. No one messes with the club.

Rosas is Taylor's turf a place where he's wildly popular for his otherworldly explorations of blues, jazz, funk and rock. He's been the house attraction there for nearly two decades now, and to him, it's not just a steady gig, it's home. A truly accessible modern-day folk hero, Taylor lives upstairs with his girlfriend Jennifer, a son named Morgan, a cat, a goldfish and a yellow Labrador retriever. In Taylor's off-hours, he'll mingle with the locals, often autographing copies of one of his five CDs.

But Taylor's status as a local institution and one of Chicago's best-kept secrets only tells half the story. Tales of his guitar exploits have traveled to various circles: One night Jimmy Page and Robert Plant stopped by; Mick Jagger grooved in the audience on another occasion; more recently, Otis Rush was in the house.

When such luminaries might swing by the club is always an open question, but why they stop by is crystal clear: Melvin Taylor is one of the most creative, exciting and incendiary blues guitarist on the modern-day Chicago scene.

Born in Mississippi in 1959, Taylor's family moved to Chicago in 1962, and he was raised on the turbulent West Side. It was one of the worst sides, he says. It was crazy. Thats all I can say. Music was all around him. His uncle, a man named Floyd Vaughan, loved to spend his post-work hours jamming to Chicago blues standards, and it wasn't long before Melvin went from quiet observer to ardent participant. He wowed his family by age 6, played with a band called the Transistors as a teen, and in the early 80's earned his first major break. The Legendary Blues Band, just weeks after parting ways with Muddy Waters, enlisted the barely-old-enough-to-drink Taylor on short notice to join them for a European tour.

So dramatic was the overseas response that Taylor eventually recorded a pair of albums for the French Isabel label, both of which were licensed and released in America by Evidence more than a decade later. Taylor continues to play regularly in Europe, where he enjoys star-level popularity. Taylors latest effort for Evidence, Bang That Bell, ups his own creative ante, building on the buzz created by 1995's acclaimed Melvin Taylor & the Slack Band and its 97 follow-up effort, Dirty Pool. Can you talk a little bit about coming of age in Chicago in the late 60's and early 70's? Given the political climate, I'm sure it wasn't easy.

Melvin Taylor: Growing up in Chicago was no day at the beach. It's a big city, and during that time there were lots of street gangs. I was seeing all kinds of crazy stuff. My brother and I used to get pressured to join gangs, and I remember my father [Charles, who still lives in Chicago] running 'em away from our house. He was the kind of guy that worked in a steel mill. He's about 6 4, 250 pounds, and a size 15 shoe with steel in the toe, so he wasn't the kind of guy that you'd want to mess with. Where did the guitar enter the picture?

Taylor: It saved me. My uncle Floyd, who was my [late] mothers twin brother, would come home each evening and just play. He worked, had a day job, and every evening before hed get off work, I was there. For me, the highlight of my day was the guitar. I couldn't wait, man. Even my grandmother and aunt played a little bit. Everybody had a song they could play, a Muddy Waters or Howlin Wolf or Lightnin Hopkins song. How did you approach the instrument when you started playing?

Taylor: Basically, I started with standard blues, Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters-type stuff. From there, I went in all directions. But the blues was the foundation. I played eight or nine hours a day for the first 10 years. It was something that felt good to do. After a while, everything just started flowing. What were the Transistors like, and how did that time help you develop as a guitarist?

Taylor: We played everything that was on the radio. It took me places where I had never been musically. I had to learn to play some rhythm, some chords. So it was no longer just about playing single notes and solos. It was playing rhythms, and behind singers. You've shown a tendency on your albums to throw in an occasional fat jazz chord. When did that enter your playing?

Taylor: That took me a while because I used to hate to play chords. I used to hate rhythm. I just told people, Man, I'm strictly a lead guitar player and I don't want to play any rhythm. But it made me a better player. After that, I could run a riff and grab a chord. I got into jazz when I first heard Wes Montgomery. It sounded like his guitar was actually speaking. It had a language that only a guitar player would understand.

(Editors Note: When Melvin Taylor was growing up, the guitar was unquestionably the most popular item in the house. But he didnt have one to call his own until he reached his teen years and obtained a Fender Mustang. Soon after, he stepped up to a Wes Montgomery-style Gibson ES-120 hollowbody, and a love affair commenced.) You've had great success in Europe, and you're a star in Chicago. But until recent years, you've been content to play only Rosas. Why?

Taylor: Well, I go to Europe every year, and in the last few years, I've started doing club shows in different places. But for a long time, it was like I didn't have to go anywhere else. If you could pull in 200 people on a Tuesday night at ten bucks a head, well, thats real good dough. I live right upstairs, so I'd just roll right out of the bed and on to the stage. It was making all of the other club owners mad, man!

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