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Taylor Made

A Founding Daddy-O of Rockabilly Returns

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Vernon Taylor

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted

He recorded "Mystery Train" for Sun Records with Sam Phillips producing. He shared his band with Patsy Cline. He sang his first single on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. Charlie Rich wrote a song for him and played piano on the recording. He led the house band on Washington, D.C.'s first rock 'n' roll TV show. He never had a national hit, but he's a living piece of rockabilly history, and he's here in Maryland, playing live shows to support his most recent album.

His name is Vernon Taylor. He may be known only to the most fanatical rockabilly collectors, but he has a fascinating story to tell.

Taylor grew up near Sandy Spring when that area of Montgomery County was still rural. His parents were farmers and old-line Baptists, and Taylor grew up listening to hillbilly and gospel music. In the early '50s, though, the teenager began hearing new twists on hillbilly by Elvis Presley and on gospel by the Dominoes.

"My generation grew up in the best of times," the 61-year-old Taylor says today. "We were innocent by comparison. New music was opening up to a white audience that had never been exposed to it before. I remember the first time I heard Elvis on Don Owens' show on WARL-AM; I thought it was the wildest thing I'd ever heard. My friends and I put together a little band; we entered some contests and won them. The term "rockabilly' hadn't been invented yet. We just called it rock 'n' roll."

By 1956, Vernon Taylor and the Nighthawks had landed a weekly gig at the Beltsville fire hall. It was there they were discovered by Owens, who hired them as the house band for his new show, The Don Owens TV Jamboree, which was broadcast on Washington's WTTG every Saturday night. Taylor's group stayed with the show for three years, sharing the stage with everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Les Paul and Mary Ford to Webb Pierce to Patsy Cline.

Like Taylor, Cline was managed by Owens, and the two played a lot of dates together, often sharing the same band. "Everybody knew she had it," Taylor recalls of Cline's star power. "We all knew she was going to make it; it was just a question of time. Even in those days, when she was singing typical country, she had it all over any other performer I had ever heard before. Whether she was wearing Western clothes or even cocktail dresses, Patsy always went over."

Taylor's own shot at stardom came in 1957 when bluegrass legend Mac Wiseman visited D.C. as an A&R man for Dot Records, home of the Dell-Vikings and Pat Boone. Wiseman signed Taylor and put him in a Nashville studio with such Presley session veterans as Floyd Cramer, Hank Garland, and the Jordanaires. The results included two singles, "I've Got the Blues" and "Why Must You Leave Me," which did well in some markets but never caught on nationally, despite Taylor's appearance on American Bandstand.

"Sam Phillips saw me on Dick Clark's show and sent [Sun Records producer Jack Clement out to Washington to check me out," Taylor says. "Jack liked me, and when I came off a promotion tour for Dot he picked me up at the Memphis bus station. There was a lot of electricity in Memphis in those days, and Sun Studios was the center of it. People were popping in and out all the time.

"Sam was still a good ol' Southern boy; he wasn't a big conversationalist. He was an advocate of, "Let's roll the tape and see what happens; maybe something spontaneous will occur.' Charlie Rich played piano on a couple of those songs, and he gave me a song called "Dinah Lee.' After recording, we'd hang out in Taylor's [the drugstore/fountain next to the studio] and we'd party at night. It was a great time."

Taylor cut two Sun singles, 1958's "Today Is a Blue Day" and a 1959 version of "Mystery Train" with Coasters-style saxophone added. Neither went anywhere, and things began to wind down for Taylor. Most of the country and rockabilly musicians from D.C. were moving to Nashville by the early '60s, but Taylor decided he wanted to stay in Maryland and raise a family. He entered the printing business and eventually moved to Myersville in Frederick County. His musical activity dwindled down to the occasional weekend gig and eventually stopped altogether.

No one was more surprised than Taylor when music journalist Joe Sasfy called him up in 1987. Sasfy asked Taylor if he knew that "Your Lovin' Man," an outtake from his Sun sessions, had been released in France and had become a sensation in European rockabilly circles. No, he didn't know; in fact, he barely remembered the song. Wheels were put in motion and Taylor agreed to play a benefit show for ailing rockabilly legend Charlie Feathers at the Severna Park Elks Club in 1989.

That led to an appearance at the Hemsby Rock 'n' Roll Weekend, Europe's leading early-rock event, in Hemsby, England, in 1995. That led to a German label, Eagle Records, releasing all of Taylor's Dot and Sun singles plus various demos and outtakes as the 29-song CD, There's Only One . . . Your Lovin' Man, in 1995. The photos of the square-jawed young Taylor with the sandy pompadour explain part of his appeal as do the handful of songs that twitch with a jumpy rockabilly energy.

All this renewed activity led Taylor to put a regular band together for the first time in more than 30 years. That band recorded an album of new material, Daddy's Rockin', released by Run Wild Records last year with a photo of the now-graying Taylor on the cover. Recorded in single takes with rough edges but infectious energy, the new album focuses on songs such as Jimmy C. Newman's "You're Making a Fool out of Me," Marty Robbins' "Sugaree," and Bobby Darin's "Early in the Morning." These songs have long been part of Taylor's live show, but he never had the chance to record them for Dot or Sun.

"The whole thing was kind of strange," Taylor acknowledges. "I was totally out of touch; I wasn't even aware of the rockabilly revival. When they put me on as a Friday night headliner at the Hemsby Rock 'n' Roll Weekend, it was the most exciting thing I'd ever done in music. I was amazed that people knew the words of everything I had recorded and were singing along.

"Music started to stir inside me again. I guess I hadn't given myself enough credit for the part I had in the beginnings of rock 'n' roll. Some people out there call me a pioneer, and I'm grateful for that."

Vernon Taylor's music is available from Record and Tape Traders stores in the Baltimore area, Ferndale Oldies in Glen Burnie, or from Taylor himself at P.O. Box 381, Myersville, MD 21773-0381.

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