Chip Taylor, born James Wesley Voight on March 21, 1940, is the youngest of three equally successful boys, actor Jon Voight and geologist and earthquake predictor Barry Voight. Born in Yonkers, NY, Taylor first tried to follow in his father’s footsteps and became a professional golfer, with limited success. He supported himself as a gambler, primarily betting horses, while he entered the music business, writing country, pop and rock songs, both alone and with other songwriters. Taylor’s best-known songs, “Wild Thing” (1966) and “Angel of the Morning” (1967), have been hits for a number of artists, and the Hollies, Willie Nelson, Johnny Tillotson, Janis Joplin, Marshall Crenshaw, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra and Waylon Jennings—among many others—have also recorded Taylor’s songs. His Yonkers, NY album (2011) was nominated for a Grammy, and he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2016.
Taylor retired from performing for nearly 20 years, but came back on a songwriter’s tour, then later with Carrie Rodriguez from 2001 to 2007 before again resuming a solo career. His latest two albums, Little Brothers and I’ll Carry for You are both intensely personal, covering family, friendship, love, loss and hope with sincerity and humor.
Marc Cohn was born on July 5, 1959, in Cleveland, Ohio. The youngest (by 12 years) of four brothers, Cohn lost his mother when he was two. Cohn started writing songs in junior high school, playing guitar and singing with a local band. While attending Oberlin College, he taught himself to play the piano. He moved to LA and began to perform in coffeehouses, then moved to New York City where the superb vocalist demo-ed songs for various writers (Jimmy Webb, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, etc.), worked as a backup artist in recording sessions, and formed the Supreme Court, a 14-piece band; fan Carly Simon got them to play at Caroline Kennedy’s wedding, in 1986.
After, the wedding performance, Cohn left the band to re-focus on his songwriting. A demo landed him a deal with Atlantic Records, and he co-produced his 1991 debut with assistance from John Leventhal. Marc Cohn included the hit “Walking in Memphis,” which was Grammy-nominated for Song of the Year and Best Pop Vocal; the album landed Cohn a Grammy Award for Best New Artist.
In May 1993, Cohn released his second studio album, The Rainy Season, which included notable guest appearances by David Crosby, Graham Nash and Bonnie Raitt.
In 2005, Cohn compiled and self-released a live album, Live 04-05, but in August of the same year, the artist was shot in the head during an attempted carjacking. The bullet lodged near his skull, but amazingly, he survived to write “Dance Back from the Grave,” on his fourth studio album, Join the Parade (2007). His rich voice can be heard on recordings by Roseanne Cash, Shawn Colvin, and Rodney Crowell, and in 2002, on Jackson Browne’s “Naked Ride Home.” Cohn’s original tunes have been recorded by many popular singers, including Susan Anton and John Tesh.
His latest record, a 2-CD set, is comprised completely of songs he wrote some 30 years ago, but you’d never know it. Careful What You Dream: Lost Songs and Rarities, a collection of demos written and recorded more than 25 years earlier includes four early versions of “Walking in Memphis.”
As Cohn himself told Elmore, “I have certainly not flooded the marketplace with product, but just because I didn’t release a lot of music doesn’t mean that I didn’t write a lot. What I release is just what I think feel strongest about. I feel proud of that,” he said, smiling. “I’ve worked harder than one might think.”
Elmore: What are you listening to right now?
Chip Taylor: My listening thing mostly revolves around my local bar. Parnell’s has some of the best music in New York City, mostly because the bartender has wonderful taste in music. Everyone has their own ideas about what good music is, but for me it couldn’t be better than this. It ranges from playing jazz to old blues to Americana and John Prine. I learn from the bartender.
Marc Cohn: This is going to sound a little bit like self-promotion, but it’s the God’s honest truth. I’m listening to the new record by William Bell, the soul legendary singer. My dearest friend, John Leventhal, produced it, and I co-wrote about half the songs, and I’m proud of it and tremendously proud to be involved. I’ve also been listening to the new Paul Simon single, “Wristband.” He’s a major influence on me.
EM: What was the first record you ever bought?
CT: I remember the Penguins had a double-sided hit, “Earth Angel” and “Hey Senorita.” The other great double-sided record was Elvis Presley, with “I Forgot to Remember to Forget Her” and “Mystery Train.” “I Forgot to Remember to Forget Her” was my favorite song.
MC: “Angel of the Morning,” by Merrilee Rush. To this day I think it’s one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded. I loved that single then, and love it now. I lost my mom when I was two, and as a six-year-old, I thought that song was about my mother. [Sings] Just call me angel of the morning. just touch my cheek before you leave. What does a six-year-old know about one night stands? Those different interpretations, that’s what makes songs so great.
A few years ago, someone else asked what was my favorite song; cut to a year later, and I’m doing a show in Seattle and signing CDs in the merch line, and a diminutive, adorable older woman steps up and goes, “Hi Marc, I’m Merrilee Rush. I hear you like my song.” I had gooseflesh head to toe. Still one favorite, favorite moment in my life.
CT: [On Marc Cohn’s story] What a nice thing, I’m glad to hear that. For me, the song is much more like what Marc said than what everybody else talks about. I had seen a war movie the night before, and the only thing that I remember was that the hero and the heroine were going to have one more night together, and they may not see one another each other forever. The question was, should he let her go home, or should they spend a night together in the hotel in Paris? It was a beautiful story about of undying love forever, love that never dies. It’s definitely more like what Marc thought than a one night stand.
EM: What was the first instrument you played?
CT: Violin at six. It meant everything to me. I practiced it, I played it, I kept it in my bed, I slept with it. Finally, on Christmas, when I was seven, there was a ukulele left for me. I didn’t realize what had happened, but my brothers had gone to my mother and father and said, You have to do something to stop the screeching. We gotta get rid of the violin. I didn’t realize that is what they had done to me. In the hospital just before she died, my mom called my brothers in and said, There’s one thing that we did that wasn’t fair ,we tried to pull one over on your brother by giving him that ukulele. You boys should be ashamed.
MC: Ukulele with three strings. I was five, and my brother, who was probably seventeen, had it lying around. I’m left-handed, so I’m sure it was a righty, but it was missing a string anyway so it didn’t matter.
EM: What brought you to the instrument you now play?
CT: In high school I was still playing a little bit of ukulele. In 1955 there was one country band in Mount Vernon, and another one in the Hudson Valley, but this was a time when country music hadn’t even made the Top 10 Countdown. The lead singer of the band in Mount Vernon learned that we both loved country music, and he came to me and said the guitarist of the band is going to move out of town, and if you could learn to play guitar by Thursday, you can take over his spot. He gave me a guitar and showed me three chords—and I knew a little bit of that so it didn’t take me that long to figure the chords out—and we started playing that Thursday.
MC: I play piano and guitar equally. I played guitar first, and it wasn’t until I went to college at Oberlin, where there’s a great Conservatory, that I played piano. I would not be allowed in the conservatory. Oberlin College had about 80 practice rooms and each one has a phenomenal Steinway Grand. I was stuck on this song I was writing on guitar, so I just took the guitar to one of the practice rooms, played all the chords I knew on guitar, and tried to find them on the piano. Then slowly, another universe opened up. I play today like I played within five days of starting to play piano…which doesn’t say a great deal about how I play today.
EM: Who would you like to write with that you haven’t?
CT: I don’t like the process of writing with someone so much. No. I like to be alone. I like to pick up the guitar and let emotion flow wherever that is, and when you write with someone else, that doesn’t happen; it’s hard to be into that emotional space
I can tell you people I admire. I admire Kris Kristofferson, who’s my friend, and I’ve never written a song with him. If we had written a song together and we liked it I would love to say, Yeah, I wrote that with Kris Kristofferson, just like when I wrote with John Prine. That was fun, and I like to say that’s done, we have something that’s nice, but I for me to say, Oh I can’t wait to write with someone...
MC: To me, it’s like I want to keep it to myself. Lately I have been writing on nothing, just singing a capella into my telephone. I have comfort zones like everybody, and I’ll always sit down and start with something relatively familiar, and to get myself out of that, I’ve stopped playing an instrument for a while, and just let melodies come without restriction of what I can and can’t play.
A few people I trust I will give lyrics to. I write with my dear friend John Leventhal, Rosanne Cash’s collaborator and husband. I sent David Crosby a lyric, he wrote the music, and it’s going to be on his next record, but that’s very rare. Lyric usually guides me, because it’s what interests me most. If I don’t have a line or two to start with I’m just not that interested. I think I may have a little ADD. There’s a reason my art form is three and a half minutes long. [Laughs].
Wish list? Daniel Lanois, Robbie Robertson would interest me. I think I could learn something from them, for sure. I would like to get a set of Joni Mitchell’s lyrics and try to do something with them myself. Lerner and Loewe…they had a couple of hits. Johnny Mercer, Jimmy Webb, one of my all-time favorites.
EM: What musician influenced you most?
CT: I was kind of self-taught and kind of felt it out myself. I’m a unique musician, but you wouldn’t say I’m a very good musician. Maybe Johnny Cash would be an influence because I played a lot of Johnny Cash songs in that simple way that he played guitar. Johnny was not a great guitar player but he had a certain way he could strum guitar, and I wouldn’t say I was like him, but I was like him in that I was simple like that, and my guitar playing was more like playing the drum. My finger would slide up and hit certain beat, so it kind of sounds like there was a drum playing, and that evolved into “Wild Thing” and those kinds of songs they were very percussive rhythm guitar songs.
MC: Paul Simon. As a songwriter, producer, the maker of his own records, he’s about the best it’s ever been. I’m not sure that anyone’s done that level of work for that long. And I love his singing. The vocal on a song called “Tenderness” is one of my favorite photos of all-time. It comes right after “Kodachrome” on Rhymin’ Simon.
I had an immediate sort of style, it’s weird. I was channeling some early Joni Mitchell thing—my little percussive thing, that’s all Joni.
EM: What was the song or event that made you realize you wanted to be in music?
CT: When I was seven or eight years old my mom and dad took me to a play because they had an extra ticket and didn’t have a babysitter. I didn’t want to go, but when the orchestra started, chills ran through my body. On the way home, I pretended to be asleep because I didn’t want them to talk to me. I wanted this feeling to be around me forever, and the feeling was music.
MC: On Sunday mornings, WMMS, the big classic rock station in Cleveland, several DJs played entire sides of singer/songwriters records, that were not necessarily part of the week day playlist, so that’s where I heard Court and Spark, by Joni [Mitchell], Late for the Sky by Jackson [Browne], Moondance by Van Morrison, and I would call the DJ, and they knew me by the time I was 13. Oh, here’s this kid again. I called to find out who was that? What label is that? Who plays on that? I wanted to know everything. I was totally tuned in to what goes into making this magic. It was all of that obsessive listening to those shows, and then going to buy those records, and then drowning out my parents with headphones on. My brother had a tape deck so by the time I was 12 or 13 he was recording my songs for me. I had a voice, kind of rough and deep, and I had a need to express myself.
EM: What was the first time you realized you were “making it”?
CT: I knew I was in the business was when Chet Atkins chose one of my songs. He wrote to his publisher, and the publisher called me. I was making $30 a song, and he read me Chet’s note, which said, “I have no idea who Chip Taylor is, and it’s very hard for me to believe that he’s from New York, but wherever he’s from, I want to hear every song he writes.” That was it. I had a few hits and all the sudden I’m signed as a staff writer. I’m in the business. They’re paying me a salary, and I don’t have to cut flowers anymore or deliver liquor.
MC: I don’t think I had that moment until I had a call from Atlantic Records saying, We want to sign you. Until that moment, I had grave doubts. I had a 12-piece rhythm Blues Band that played at Carol Kennedy’s wedding–that was our final gig. One of the players in the horn section was hired by Atlantic to find talent, but mostly jazz. Since he was in my band, he gave this guy at Atlantic a tape of mine, and said, “I know this isn’t jazz, but you might like it.” After I’d sent tapes around to everybody five times, this time they gave me a pen.
EM: What was the first time you felt you had success?
CT: When Chet started recording my songs, I was always on the country charts with something, but then I wrote “Wild Thing.” I knew that “Wild Thing” thing was coming to the States and was going to be played on the radio. I was just married, up in Hartsdale at our local swimming pool and I had the radio on, just in case. And all the sudden it came on, and I said, Wow, this is it!
I had this respect in Europe, especially in England, where they were much more analytical about music and delved into who did what, who played on what, who wrote what, while in the US all you knew was who recorded it, that was it. I remember one day I was going over to England to go visit the publisher, and I got there and they handed me the big music paper, the New Music Express, and the headline was “CHIP TAYLOR ARRIVES TODAY.” Oh shit!
MC: I had a bunch of those. One was walking into Tower Records and buying my own CD. I just missed the LP, which came out overseas, but in ’91 it was the long box CD. That was huge. After my record had become a hit, I was opening for Crosby Stills and Nash, and I’d started to meet some of my heroes, and at this one particular show in LA, onstage, I turned around and behind me, singing background on one of my songs, was David [Crosby], Graham [Nash], Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt. I didn’t think, “I’ve made it,” I thought, “I could die here.” It was an amazing moment. Then, hearing it on the radio, for the first time, driving in Connecticut, and I still remember the introduction. The minute he said, “This is a song I love, it reminds me of this guy, Andy Pratt. I think you’re going to love it, too,” I thought, I think he’s going to play me, and he played “Walking in Memphis.” I had to pull over and take it in. It was an out-of-body thing.
I’ll tell you another one. Doing an interview in Hamburg Germany, the guy had to turn off the tape recorder because we were interrupted by the sound coming from across the lake. A radio station was having an event outside, blasting “Walking in Memphis” across the lake. I thought, “This is it. This has made its way around the world.”
EM: Who would you like in your rock ‘n’ roll heaven band?
CT: Scotty Moore just passed away, and he was a big influence on all the stuff that I liked back in the early days. Hank Garland was another unbelievable studio musician and played on all those early, early hits—he was a jazz guitar player, totally respected. He was injured in an accident in 1956 or ’57, and the musicians would not play session without him even though Hank couldn’t play like he used to play—he could kind of play certain chords, but they wouldn’t play unless he was there, so that he could make a living. Mickey “Guitar” Baker was another great one, and John Platania, who played on Moondance and Domino. I like the way Bobby Moore plays on all those records out of Nashville, and he is a great bass player. I love the drummer that I have now Tony Leone, he plays with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and Ollabelle. I have used Seth Farber, a wonderful keyboard player in New York, but he couldn’t go on the road, and I found this guy in Norway, Goran Grini and he was unbelievable, but if I were going to have a country band, I would probably choose Floyd Cramer. Hell, if I had a vocalist I probably pick John Prine, he’s a sneaky great vocalist. Going to a John Prine concert is like going to church, only better.
MC: I’d have Jim Keltner and Levon [Helm] on drums, and maybe Charlie Watts couldn’t join them too, they all go together in my mind. Paul McCartney on bass. I love John Leventhal’s guitar, and I’d have Bonnie [Raitt] on slide, and Lowell George. Oh! Ry Cooder! He’d have the main guitar chair. John and Bonnie can support him. I want the Dixie Hummingbirds doing background, with Sam Cooke singing lead, Ray Charles, too, but certainly Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin on piano. Her greatest records are the ones where she’s playing. I don’t even want to be the singer. I’ll just hang out and listen.
EM: What’s your desert island CD?
CT: The original Kris Kristofferson album, I wore that one out, or Dublin Blues by Guy Clark, I remember driving off the road listening to that; or pretty much anything by John Prine.
MC: One? Really? It would have to be a full Simon box set. If I could only take one, it would be There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.