Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Janis Joplin and dozens more sang his songs, which spanned country, rock, R&B and beyond. Now 83, he talks about ‘Wild Thing’ and why he is still chasing the chill
Photo: The ‘hit man’ … Chip Taylor in 2013. Photograph: Mark Sullivan/Getty Images
04 April 2023 | Gianluca Tramontana | The Guardian
Chip Taylor is best known for a song of restless raunchiness – the three-chord groin-thrust of the Troggs’ Wild Thing – and one of history’s most epic power ballads in Angel of the Morning, but his songs, he says, come from a much quieter, cooler place. “It comes sort of stream-of-consciousness,” he says, adding that he hears each song in his head “as a listener”. “These words are just coming and I’m having that ‘chill’. There’s a certain stillness that I get through my body. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful – but it means if I can get enough of that spirit going, I know that it’s gonna be worthwhile for me. That’s a wonderful blessing.”
We’re talking on a video call and Taylor, speaking from his Manhattan apartment, apologises for having a hoarse voice from the chemotherapy and radiotherapy for a recently diagnosed throat cancer.
His soft-spoken ease and approachability belie his six-decade career as a Hit Man – to poach a title from his mid-90s comeback album. He began as the frontman of a rock’n’roll band, then turned to writing for others during the Brill Building era of early pop, soon encompassing rock, R&B and both classic country and outlaw country: icons as varied as Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Janis Joplin, Willie Nelson and Nina Simone recorded his songs. He has also enjoyed a solo country career with major labels, indies and his own Train Wreck Records, and at 83 is as prolific as ever, with 27 new songs on his latest album, The Cradle of All Living Things.
Born James Wesley Voight in Yonkers, Westchester County, New York, the son of a professional golfer, achievement was a family trait. His brother Jon Voight became a successful actor, as did his niece Angelina Jolie, and his other brother, Barry, became a top volcanologist. Taylor wrote his first song at 12, and by sixteen he was fronting Wes Voight & the Town Three. After two regional hits, a tour with Neil Sedaka and the name change to Chip Taylor, he ended up as a solo artist at Warner Brothers in 1962, while at the same time knocking on music publishers’ doors and selling the occasional song.
Music publisher Jerry Tyfer sent Taylor’s Springtime to Chet Atkins, the producer behind country’s sophisticated “Nashville Sound”, who sent Tyfer back a note. Taylor recalls it: “I have no idea who Chip Taylor is. It’s very hard for me to believe he’s from New York, but wherever he’s from, I want to hear every song he writes.” It led to Atkins recording half a dozen Chip Taylor songs, and Taylor’s new position as staff writer at April Blackwood Music, CBS’s publishing arm. “That’s where I started writing some rock’n’roll things,” says Taylor. “Any Way That You Want Me and some other things. And then Wild Thing and Angel of the Morning.”
At 1650 Broadway, a short walk from the Brill Building, there was a hive of activity: Neil Sedaka, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Bert “Twist and Shout” Berns, Howie “Is This the Way to Amarillo” Greenfield, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were just a few of the writers alongside Taylor. “Every office in the publishing company had a desk, a phone, a piano and a sofa, so you could have little meetings there and write your songs,” says Taylor, whose boyhood late-night longwave radio diet of doo-wop, blues and country music allowed him to bridge the chasm between New York and Nashville.
When asked why his songs have been covered in so many different genres, Taylor says his music “doesn’t have to fit a certain kind of thing. It’s soulful. Any Way That You Want Me was recorded by Spiritualized and a bunch of different rock bands, yet it was a big rhythm and blues hit by Walter Jackson and Evie Sands. Almost every time that was recorded, it went on the charts … it defied categorisation.”
Taylor’s chill-driven songwriting flow was countered by the logic and mathematics of horse racing, and he pored over forms well into the night to figure out who had the better odds. “When I went into the city to my staff writing job, I would work the night before on the racing forms, and would spend an enormous lot of time on that stuff so I could make my one or two bets in the morning,” he explains. At one time, the infamous mobster Meyer Lansky’s organisation acted as the bookie for Taylor’s bets. “Lansky’s guy’s name was George and he used to come every Monday to collect the pay,” remembers Taylor. “After a certain period of time, he bought me beautiful bottles of whiskey for Christmas and my birthday. I said to George: ‘What’s going on here? I beat you 53 out of 56 weeks.’ ‘Chip,’ he said, ‘ever since you won the first couple of bets, our boss told us to take whatever you bet, multiply it by 10, and lay it off with the other bookies. You’re one of our best customers!’”
In 1965, a year into his staff writing job, Taylor got a call that turbo-charged his career trajectory: A&R man Gerry Granahan needed a rock’n’roll song for New York band the Wild Ones. “Most of my success was country,” Taylor remembers. “I hadn’t really had any rock hits at the time.” In the excitement, and with a country demo session booked for that afternoon, “I got off the phone, picked up the guitar and started singing. I was kind of buzzing he had called me.” And so, almost in real time, Wild Thing was born.
Partial discography. See more
“I just wrote a verse and a chorus and I couldn’t come up with anything else,” remembers Taylor. “Finally, I realised I didn’t need anything else. I could just say the same thing, and change three words from ‘Well, I think I love you’ to ‘Well, I think you move me’. What more do you need?” With the 5pm demo session approaching, he went into the studio, dimmed the lights and winged it; engineer Ron Johnson made owl sounds by blowing into his cupped hands, which became an ocarina solo on the eventual Troggs record.
The Wild Ones’ harmonica-driven single went nowhere but Taylor’s demo reached Larry Page, manager of the Troggs. “They covered it just the way my demo was,” says Taylor. He thinks the looming recording session and writer’s block might have made the song. “A lot of people don’t realise what a beautiful thing space is in a song. Wild Thing still gives me the chills; when I strike the chords and you know the spirit of it. It’s a nice feeling.”
The song endures today, powered in part by the band’s fanbase whom Taylor says “represent the true spirit of rock’n’roll”. At Troggs singer Reg Presley’s funeral in 2013, there was “a Troggs hit every 15 minutes during the service. When Wild Thing played just before Reg was cremated, they all stood up, pumping their fists in the air and singing. It was so beautiful and the tears were flowing.”
Wild Thing was a No 1 in the US and No 2 in the UK in 1966, and was soon given an unforgettable live rendition by Jimi Hendrix. Taylor’s “hit man” reputation was minted, and his songs began charting multiple times with different artists. Another 1966 song, I Can’t Let Go, was a UK No 2 for the Hollies that year and then a US hit for Linda Ronstadt in 1980; Shaggy’s version of Angel of the Morning topped the US and UK charts over three decades after it was written in 1967, having already been successfully covered by Juice Newton, the Pretenders, PP Arnold, Merrilee Rush and more over the years.
Brothers L-R) Jon Voight, Chip Taylor and Barry Voight attend Songwriters Hall Of Fame 47th Annual Induction And Awards at Marriott Marquis Hotel on June 9, 2016 in New York City. The brothers are Yonkers natives and all graduated from Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains.
“Angel of the Morning is just such a spirited song and wrote itself very quickly,” Taylor says. “Just like [Troggs hit] Any Way That You Want Me, I got into the spirit of a woman and let the words flow out. I think it was inspired by a war movie that I’d seen on television the night before, where two lovers on different sides of the war were spending any time they could together. People thought it was just a roll in the hay but I didn’t mean it like that at all. This was the most powerful love of two people who may never see each other again – they would love each other forever and beyond time. It was a very serious song.”
In 1980 Taylor grew frustrated with Capitol Records’ lack of backing for his latest solo release, and over the next 14 years his part-time gambling became full-time. With the exception of Papa Come Quick for Bonnie Raitt’s Luck of the Draw, co-written with Billy Vera in 1991, there was nothing. “I just didn’t have the headspace,” he explains. But when his mother was ill, he played to her by her bedside – “It was just nice to be with her and communicate with her” – and suddenly the spirit and chills started to creep back in. “I totally made an about-face and called my [gambling] partner”, Taylor recalls. “I said: you’re not going to believe this Ernie, I’m gonna give up gambling totally. I’m going to just go play music for whoever wants to hear me play.” His 1996 comeback album, Hitman, was followed by an album almost every year since.
The epic title of his latest batch of songs, Cradle of All Living Things, gives way to mostly intimate, delicate songs with a lean-in quality – the type of songs a grandfather might want to leave his grandkids. It might even lead one to think it’s a final farewell. “I’ve been going through this chemotherapy and the radiation,” Taylor says. “I don’t want to get away from the fact that a lot of this has to do with living and dying. My wife and I are getting older, she has had several strokes, and I’m going through this beautiful period of time with her and trying to come out the other end so we have some more time to spend together. But I don’t let that get in the way of my guitar and my songs: a lot of my efforts are around my love for her and my love for my family.” The suggestion that his writing is a form of catharsis hits the spot. “It’s always been that way,” he says. “Even if I was hoping something would be a hit back in the 60s, if you got that little chill from writing a song, what better can you do for yourself?”
I ask him for the most recent song that gave him those chills. “I wrote one coming out of church the other day,” he replies. “I have a lot of questions, but I like going to church with my wife, particularly during these hard times. If Jesus was a carpenter then he wasn’t a songwriter, and might appreciate a good song.” Taylor chuckles and then shuffles through some papers on the desk looking for the title. “Here it is – it’s called The Blessing”. So after all these decades writing songs, is the attraction the same? “Yeah – I’m still chasing the chill.”
Chip Taylor Biography
by William Ruhlmann All Music
Chip Taylor will probably always be known as the songwriter who wrote “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning.” Born James Wesley Voight (actor Jon Voight is his older brother), Taylor began playing country music while still in high school in Yonkers, New York. After finishing high school, he briefly took up his father’s occupation, becoming a professional golfer. But he suffered a wrist injury and turned back to music.
In 1962, he signed to Warner Bros., and his single “Here I Am” bubbled just under the Billboard Hot 100 in November. He became more successful, however, as a songwriter, scoring his first hit with “I Can’t Let Go” (co-written with Al Gorgoni), which was recorded by the Hollies for a chart entry in March 1966. (Linda Ronstadt revived the song for a Top 40 hit in 1980.) Then came the simplistic but unforgettable “Wild Thing,” recorded by another British group, the Troggs, who topped the charts with it in July, creating a much-covered standard. A parody by “Senator Bobby” (comedian Bill Minkin) hit the Top 40 in January 1967, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience performed the song at the Monterey Pop Festival in June.
Meanwhile, Taylor continued to write hits: “Make Me Belong to You” (co-written with Billy Vera) hit the Top 40 for Barbara Lewis in August 1966; “I Can Make It with You” was cut by both the Pozo-Seco Singers and Jackie DeShannon, with the Pozo-Seco Singers‘ version winning out and hitting the Top 40 in October 1966; the American Breed recorded “Step Out of Your Mind” for a Top 40 hit in July 1967; and Billy Vera & Judy Clay hit the Top 40 with “Country Girl City Man” (co-written with Ted Daryll) in March 1968.
But Taylor’s second standard was “Angel of the Morning,” a ballad about premarital sex that pushed the boundaries of acceptable subject matter in pop music. Merrilee Rush & the Turnabouts recorded the song, and it reached the Top Ten in June 1968; Juice Newton revived it in 1981 for a second Top Ten hit and a gold record. With Gorgoni, Taylor wrote “I’ll Hold Out My Hand,” recorded by the Clique for a Top 40 hit in December 1969. Also in 1969, Janis Joplin recorded Taylor and Jerry Ragavoy‘s “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” and released it as the lead track on her debut solo album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!
Taylor had not given up his ambition to be a recording artist himself. He and Gorgoni recorded together under the name Just Us, then Taylor cut a series of solo albums in the ’70s, including This Side of the Big River, which reached the country charts in 1975, as did five Taylor singles between 1975 and 1977.
His songwriting efforts also found favor in Nashville, with “Sweet Dream Woman” (co-written with Gorgoni) reaching the country Top Ten for Waylon Jennings in 1972 and Anne Murray‘s recording of “Son of a Rotten Gambler” hitting the country Top Ten in 1974. Nevertheless, Taylor gave up the music business and became a professional gambler, not returning to music until 1993 when he joined a national songwriters’ tour. He released a new album, The Living Room Tapes, in 1997, followed by Seven Days in May in 1998, The London Sessions Bootleg in 2000, Black and Blue America in 2001, and a collaboration with Carrie Rodriguez, Let’s Leave This Town, in 2002. A sampler mini-album drawing tracks from several ongoing recording projects, New Songs of Freedom appeared in 2008. Also appearing in 2008 was the ornately packaged Songs from a Dutch Tour, which featured both an autobiographically themed trade paperback book and a new CD of recorded material. The autobiographical tenet was followed by the release of Taylor’s 2009 album Yonkers, NY, an earthy collection of new songs and stories about his hometown and family.
In 2011, Taylor resurfaced with Rock and Roll Joe: A Tribute to the Unsung Heroes of Rock n’ Roll, a collection of covers with John Platania and Kendel Carson. Taylor has always been mercurial, and he shifted gears yet again in 2011. He released his first children’s album on Smithsonian Folkways, Golden Kids Rules, accompanied by his three granddaughters. Becoming increasingly more prolific, Taylor managed to deliver five new albums over the next five years, including 2012’s wry F**k All the Perfect People, 2014’s The Little Prayers Trilogy, and 2016’s Little Brothers, all on his Train Wreck label. The hot streak continued in February 2017 with A Song I Can Live With, which featured contributions from multi-instrumentalist Goran Grini, guitarist and longtime associate John Platania, and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz.
His “Wild Thing” a hit several times over, including indelible live performance by Jimi Hendrix
Started writing songs as young teenager, went on to record 23 solo albums
Chip Taylor is responsible for one of the most famous songs to come out of the 1960s—The Troggs’ 1966 hit “Wild Thing,” which was famously covered in 1967 by Jimi Hendrix. His other big hits include Merrilee Rush’s 1968 “Angel InThe Morning” (also covered by Juice Newton), The Hollies “I Can’t Let Go” (1966, also notably covered by Evie Sands and Linda Ronstadt) and Janis Joplin’s “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)” (1969). His songs have also been recorded by such luminaries as Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and Frank Sinatra, with Norway’s premier folk singer Paal Flaata recording an entire album of Taylor songs, Wait by the Fire, and taking it to his country’s Top 10 and a Norwegian Grammy nomination.
Taylor was born James Wesley Voight in Yonkers, N.Y., on March 21, 1940. His older brother is the Oscar-winning actor Jon Voight (Voight’s Oscar-winning daughter Angelina Jolie is Taylor’s niece), and a second older brother, Barry Voight, is an award-winning volcanologist and engineer in his own right. After a failed attempt as a professional golfer, Taylor commenced a career in music, writing songs by himself and with others including Brill Building session player Al Gorgoni—with whom he recorded in the duo Just Us and notched a hit in 1966 with “I Can’t Grow Peaches on a Cherry Tree” with Billy Vera (they co-wrote “Storybook Children,” which Vera recorded with gospel singer Judy Clay in 1967 as the first major label interracial duo) and Jerry Ragovoy, with whom he wrote the Janis Joplin hit “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder).” Other artists covering Taylor songs have included Willie Nelson, Johnny Tillotson, Barbara Lewis, The Pozo Seco Singers, Jackie DeShannon, Lita Ford, American Breed, Lorraine Ellison, Bobby Fuller Four, Marshall Crenshaw, The Fleetwoods, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare, Emmylou Harris and Anne Murray.
Taylor has also maintained a successful recording career, after recording as Wes Voight for King Records in the late 1950s, and later as Chip Taylor for Warner Bros., Columbia and Capitol–taking a break in the mid-‘70s for a successful stint as a professional gambler (he specialized in blackjack and horse-racing). He appeared in the 1980 film Melvin and Howard before relaunching his music career three years later with singer/violinist Carrie Rodriguez, with whom he recorded and performed through much of the next decade. He also performed with other artists including Robbie Fulks, John Platania and Kendel Carson.
In 2007, Taylor launched his independent label Train Wreck Records, for which he recorded the 2011 Grammy-nominated autobiographical album Yonkers, NY. His 2011 children’s album Golden Kids Rules featured his three granddaughters.