June 13, 2024

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Book review: Matt Rogers – Goodnight Boogie: A Tale Of Guns, Wolves, & The Blues of Hound Dog Taylor 2023: Videos, Cover

There aren’t many artists who can say that someone created an entire record label and business for the sole purpose of putting out an album by them (and in fact, this might be the only instance).

But that’s what superfan Bruce Iglauer did for his favorite local Chicago blues band, Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers. And that’s precisely how Alligator Records—which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary as one of the most popular and influential blues labels ever—took its first bite.

And while he never achieved the commercial or popular success of friends and contemporaries like Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and B.B. King, Taylor’s gutbucket, raw, “lo-fi blues” has influenced many a student including Jack White, the Black Keys, George Thorogood, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

The “wolves” of the title refer to the frightening, recurring lifelong dreams that the rail-thin Taylor would have of being chased by the fang-bearing beasts. That stretched back to when he was a boy in Mississippi picking cotton on a plantation—though he was put out of the house at age 9 by his angry stepfather.

Taylor began playing blues early, and by his mid-twenties was a popular local attraction in Mississippi. But a made-for-the-movies late night visit from the Ku Klux Klan—complete with burning cross on his lawn and men with guns and dogs looking for him—hastened his decision to move to Chicago.

The Klan’s visit was purportedly to have a talking to Taylor about his suspected dalliances with one of the Klan member’s wife and area white women in general. Later, he was bestowed the nickname “Hound Dog” for his propensity to sniff out women wherever and whenever he could (despite having a decades-long common law wife).

Two physical attributes also marked Hound Dog Taylor: He was born with an extra pinky on both hands. He later drunkenly chopped the one on his right hand off with a straight razor because it bothered him. He was also a raging alcoholic whose main sustenance all day everyday seemed to be Canadian Club whisky and cigarettes. Years later, he was especially excited to be touring the country because that’s where the drink was made!

And when Taylor was scheduled to play a blues Festival in the early ‘70s but was suffering withdrawals because he didn’t have any booze to drink, Iglauer broke into a local liquor store and stole enough whisky to keep the band going.

Despite grinding it out for more than a dozen years in Chicago clubs to mostly Black audiences, Taylor found it hard to break through on a national level. Earlier in his life, Taylor claims to have shown Elmore James the song “Dust My Broom” and his slide guitar technique—the single song would skyrocket James to stardom.

Rogers also presents credible evidence that Freddie King’s breakthrough hit “Hideaway” was based on a Hound Dog Taylor riff. Of course, blues players have a long, long history of adapting, borrowing, and stealing licks, lyrics, and melodies.

What did set Taylor apart was his musical stylings and his band. With Taylor on guitar and lead vocals, Brewer Phillips on second guitar, and Ted Harvey on drums (they had no bass player), the trio played a raw, distorted, more hard-edged blues sound, accented by Taylor’s preference for cheap Japanese electric guitars and amps that made fuzzy sounds.

Rogers chronicles the decades-long testy relationship between Taylor and Phillips. The pair would just as easily engage in screaming matches, punch-ups, and gun-or-knife drawing contests as play together onstage. Phillips left several times but was always talked into coming back. That ended later in the band’s lifespan when Taylor actually shot Phillips three times with a rifle during a drunken house party. Phillips survived, and Taylor was charged with attempted murder but skated punishment.

The story of how Iglauer put up the money for Taylor’s 1971 Alligator debut Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers is part of blues lore (and also covered in Iglauer’s excellent autobiography, Bitten by the Blues). Rogers fills in details about the U.S. worldwide tours that would follow in which Iglauer served as road manager/caretaker/guidance counselor, and the fraught times of his getting the band to gigs and trying to guide Taylor, capable of self-sabotage at times.

Broken in body by years of abuse and suffering from lung cancer, Hound Dog Taylor died in 1975, a year after recording and releasing a second album. But he remains not only an inspiration to blues rock players and a cult figure, he’s in a sense the spiritual father of Alligator Records. It’s not for no reason that his best-known tune “Give Me Back My Wig,” leads off each of the label’s ongoing anniversary compilations.

Matt Rogers has done a wonderful job in illuminating the life and music of a true blues character and fills in a very-much needed hole in blues scholarship with Goodnight Boogie. Which is also the title of the last song that appeared on Taylor’s last studio record, and a fitting epitaph.

If the only thing that Theodore Roosevelt Taylor did during his career was to serve as the inspiration for Bruce Iglauer to start his Alligator Records label for the sole purpose of recording Taylor, that alone would be enough to guarantee the guitarist a well-deserved place of honor in the history of blues music.

But, as author Matt Rogers makes abundantly clear, there is plenty more to the story of an artist who’s influence still reverberates almost 50 years after his passing, as witnessed by the band GA-20 recently releasing a full album tribute to the iconic blues man.

Born in Mississippi in 1917, Taylor had a familiar upbringing – parents that were sharecroppers, learning music in church, and not getting much of a formal education. After a disagreement, his stepfather forced the nine year old Taylor to leave home. He went to live with his sister, who had a house nearby with a piano. That became Taylor’s first instrument. Once he became confident about his abilities, he began to play house parties and juke joints, sometimes using a mule and wagon to haul the piano across fields to his next gig.

By the time he was 20 years old, Taylor had made the switch to guitar, which was far easier to transport. He learned by watching other area guitar players, eventually shifting to slide guitar just as Robert Johnson had done. Being born with an extra digit on each hand certainly helped his slide work. Taylor had heard plenty of Johnson’s music growing up. He claimed to have taught a youthful Elmore James how to play Johnson’s classic, “Dust My Broom,” which later became a huge hit for James, much to Taylor’s dismay.

In 1942, Taylor left Mississippi after an armed confrontation with a local white man who suspected that the guitarist was interested in his wife. The next day, a posse of the Ku Klux Klan appeared in his yard, setting a cross on fire. Taylor slipped out the back, managing to sneak away. He quickly decided to take a long bus trip to Chicago where he could stop looking over his shoulder.

Once he arrived, it took a few years of playing clubs to start to get noticed. He recorded several tracks for small record labels, which helped him get better gigs. While playing a gig at a West side club, Taylor meets guitarist Brewer Phillips. The two quickly learn that they speak the same musical language. Several years later, Taylor makes the decision to ask drummer Ted Harvey to join his band. Harvey had been backing Elmore James until his untimely passing. The final piece was in place. Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers were ready to take on the world.

With Harvey laying down a driving beat while Phillips added bass lines and fills on his guitar, Taylor had the perfect band for his raucous style. Playing his inexpensive Japanese guitar through a worn amplifier cranked to the point of distortion while sitting in a chair, Taylor seldom failed to turn an audience into a swirling mass of dancers. The trio was soon filling any venue that booked them, gaining a reputation as the band to beat in town.

With the release of their first album on Alligator, and Iglauer’s guidance, the band’s popularity spread quickly, leading to better bookings, including festivals and European tours. The music was raw and intense, the money was right, so the future looked promising.

At least until Phillips and Harvey decided that they deserved a bigger share of the money coming in. Taylor had been a heavy drinker all of his life, and Phillips was in the same league. They would get into arguments time and again, with Iglauer and Harvey doing their best to smooth things over, especially when the disagreements occurred on stage. It all came to a head late one night with near tragic consequences.

The release of the band’s second album, Natural Boogie in 1974, kept Taylor in the spotlight. Rolling Stone magazine did a feature piece on him, a high honor for any blues artist. Soon he and Iglauer started working on tracks for a live album, a recording that promised to capture the band at its houserockin’ finest. Then Taylor began to feel poorly, and a few short months later he was gone.

The foreword, written by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, describes the lasting influence Taylor had on Auerbach’s style. Additional praise at several points comes from another famous slide guitarist, George Thorogood, who spent a career trying to emulate Taylor’s sound. It is a tale with many surprising twists and turns, told in fine fashion by Matt Rogers, making this fascinating biography a highly recommended addition to your blues library!

Goodnight Boogie: A Tale of Guns, Wolves & The Blues of Hound Dog Taylor: Rogers, Matt: 9781947026971: Amazon.com: Books

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