By Richie Unterberger

Though most famous for writing or co-writing big pop and rock hits in the 1960s, Chip Taylor has often devoted his solo albums to country music. When he released a trio of such LPs on Warner Brothers in the early-to-mid-1970s, that came as a big surprise to both his record label and to pop music fans, who knew him mostly as the author of "Wild Thing" and "Angel of the Morning." The last of these, 1975's This Side of the Big River, made barely a commercial ripple in the US upon its initial release, reaching #36 in the country charts—the only LP release of his to enter that list. Nonetheless, it's one that he remains proud of, particularly for the opportunity it gave him to express some of the most personal sentiments he's ever conveyed in song.

    Taylor had recorded on his own and as part of groups before signing to Warner Brothers in the early 1970s. But his move into country on his first LP for the label, 1973's Last Chance, wasn't what the company was expecting. "I was pursued by Mary Martin, who was Leonard Cohen's manager back in the day," explains Chip today. "She'd just taken over the East Coast representation for Warner Brothers Records, and really went after me to sign with the label. I had written a bunch of rock'n'roll things that were successful, and [my first solo LP, 1971's] Gasoline was a little rock'n'roll-oriented. When Mary signed me, she expected, I think, I would go into that same thing."

    However, he continues, "What I did was, I locked myself away in Boston and recorded a country album, Last Chance. Mary didn't get to hear what I was doing until I was finished. It was a labor of love, because even though I was from Yonkers, New York, my real love was country. I lived for country, and also the race records from down South. When I had time to have my own band, my heart went right back to my love of country music, like the early Elvis things and the Brown family. Mary was, like, shocked when she heard it. The Warner Brothers people flew me out to California and, after listening to it, said, 'Jesus, Chip, what the hell are we gonna do with this? We don’t have a country division!' They quickly got a country division together, and did their best to promote it. But they had no expertise in this area."

    Though Last Chance got a cult following (particularly in Europe), neither it nor its follow-up, Some of Us, sold well. "I had a two-album contract, and expected that I was gonna be dropped," says Taylor. "Everybody had signed off on me. But they had a promotion man that was a fan of mine. The following week, because the promotion man [who] was told not to promote my record was promoting it under the table late at night, a song called 'Me As I Am' from Some of Us became the first country chart record ever on Warner Brothers. The guy in charge of the division said, 'How the hell can we drop Chip Taylor? He's our first country hit artist.' So now, they asked me if I would please stay," he laughs.

    This Side of the Big River, he continues, "was really a labor of love record. I started recording in a little recording studio, Minot, up in White Plains [New York]." Backing him was the band he used when playing locally in New York, with overdubs being done in Nashville by fiddler Buddy Spiker, famed pedal steel player Pete Drake, and esteemed backup vocalists the Jordanaires, noted for working on Nashville sessions by everyone from Elvis Presley on down. Sandy Bull, the eclectic multi-instrumentalist who'd recorded innovative albums blending folk, jazz, and world music in the 1960s, added oud to a couple songs, he and Taylor having become friendly when Chip was recording in Boston. Unusually, three of the tracks—"Big River," "John Tucker," and "You're Alright, Charlie"—were taken from a live radio show broadcast on the New Hampshire radio station WHNW-FM, although they were overdubbed and remixed at Minot Sound.

    Several of the songs were based on real-life characters in Taylor's orbit. "'John Tucker' was actually a true story, about this guy that came into the bar and I didn't know who the heck he was," he confirms. "He used to come in with a suitcase in his hand, just sit there and drink. I didn't know if he was going someplace or coming. But I knew he was a fan. I talked to him after the shows, and he would sing all the songs we were playing at a place called JT's in New York. 'You're Alright Charlie' was written about a friend of mine, Charlie Knoblock. We still remain the best of friends; Charlie runs my record company now! I was separated from my wife at the time, and did a bunch of songs for her, including 'Sleepy Eyes,' 'Circle the Tears,' and 'Holding Me Together.'" "My God Be with Me" was inspired by "a little incident that I saw on a train; it's one of those story-songs that I don't often write, but I liked it. I loved the fact that I had George [lead acoustic guitarist George Kiriakis] sing it. He was a very religious, warm fellow. He's a preacher now, and I was glad to turn that song over to him."

    The leadoff track, "Same Ol' Story," went into unusually  political territory for country music with its references to the then-winding-down Vietnam War. It would become an unexpected smash for Taylor—but only in a very unexpected place. "By that time, I had proven to Warner Brothers I wasn't gonna sell a ton of records," he chuckles. "All of a sudden, I got a phone call from Warner Brothers Holland. He said, 'There's something  going on for you here that we don't understand. You're selling more records than we would expect you to sell, and we have no idea why. Do you want to come over here and play a couple of shows, and maybe we'll see why?'"

    Resumes Taylor, "So I get there, and the band had had an argument with the owners, and they had left. It was some little jazz cafe, and I was left there by myself. The Warner Brothers people said, 'We're not gonna put you through this, we'll do another show, we'll build up.' And I said, 'I can't do that.' The line was around the block; I couldn't believe how many people were gonna be showing up for this show. It turned out that there was a little country band sitting back there that was supposed to open for me. I said, 'Let me go back there and talk to these boys. Maybe we can do a few songs together.' I went back there and went over a Merle Haggard song with 'em, 'Big River,' 'Long Black Veil,' and a couple of other things; just any country songs that I knew. I said, 'Well, okay, we got three songs we could do. Let me see if we can do some of mine.' 'The Real Thing' [from Last Chance] isn't too hard, I started to play that for 'em, and all of a sudden, they started to sing with me in the chorus. 'You know this song?!' He said, 'Yeah, yeah, we know this song. We know all your songs. We know every song that you got. That's what we do. We do your songs.' So we went out and did a two-hour show or something like that. It was unbelievable. It was among my favorite moments in my life."

    Finishes Chip, "When I did that, the record company released 'Same Old Story,' and it went to #2 in the charts in Holland. This Side of the Big River became a big success in Holland, and I was thrilled. I went back over and played a tour, and every show was sold out." That couldn't save Taylor from being dropped by Warner Brothers US, despite Johnny Cash himself (whose mid-'50s hit "Big River" was the sole cover tune on the LP) writing a letter to radio DJs praising Chip's version and asking them to give the album a listen. By the beginning of the '80s, Taylor had wound down his musical activities in favor of professional gambling, though in the last ten years he's redevoted himself to his music with frequent recording and touring.

    "There's so much passion in this record that's so real and warm to me," summarizes Chip of This Side of the Big River. "These aren't your typical commercial songs, but boy, if you really want to know me, this is the album that will get you to know me. All the feelings I have for family and friends, the people that mean the most to me, are in here, and a little bit of what I stand for."

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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