Featured Interview – Norman Taylor

Norman Taylor knew full well what he was getting into when he made the decision to play the blues for a living.

Well aware of the early careers of those that inspired him – cats such as Guy Davis, Eric Bibb and Keb Mo – Taylor relegated himself to the fact that there would be plenty of solitary hours spent on a seemingly-endless highway, driving from one gig to the next, and the next and the next.

But still …

“Last week, I drove from a festival in Florence, South Carolina all the way up to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania for a celebration of life for a woman named Peg Waltner, who was a promoter and impresario of the blues,” he said. “So I drove 10 hours from where I live down to Florence, then 10 hours back up and then three hours over (to Wilkes-Barre), all in two days. But that’s just what you do, man.”

Where some might look at such grueling excursions as pure misery, the acoustic bluesman from the Philadelphia area looks at road trips like that as an opportunity; an opportunity to further spread the gospel of his debut CD, Blue Soul (Soul Stew Records).

“I’ve had the chance to do some fantastic things lately – this summer especially. One of the highlights was getting to play the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which was an amazing experience,” he said. “I got to share the stage with one of my heroes, Josh White Jr. That was awesome. And I played the Briggs Farm Festival, which is in Pennsylvania and is a pretty sizeable blues festival, too, so it’s been awesome.”

Blue Soul was feted with a nomination for Best Acoustic Blues Album at this year’s Blues Blast Awards and its 11 tracks (10 of which are Taylor-penned originals) seem to be in perfect lock-step with the space that its creator is in these days.

“My spiritual path right now is directed toward an uplifting, New Thought-type of path. I’m actually a practitioner of New Thought philosophy/spirituality. I’m into this idea that ‘you are what you think.’ Ernest Holmes, who was one of the bigger people in it (New Thought), his philosophy was ‘change your thoughts, change your mind.’ And that’s been helpful for me. The things that have happened to me recently have been a direct result of where I’ve been placing my attention. Stuff like my meeting the guys at Soul Stew was a series of circumstances with different things coming into play. We met down south at a festival together. Eric (Selby, Soul Stew founder) was talking about this idea of forming a label and wanted me to be on it. And now, here I am.”

That New Thought philosophy comes through loud and clear on Blue Soul. Sure, the music on the disc is most definitely the blues, and as such, it deals with much of the same subject matter that the lion’s share of music cranked out in the genre does. But the underlying vibe is of a hopeful, positive nature. Put it this way – you won’t hear a whole lot of downtrodden and depressing woe-is-me kind of tracks on Blue Soul.

“We all get a little bit of that (misery) in our lives, but I think that you should play what you live – if that makes sense. For me to act like I’m some old dude on the back porch in Bentonia or Clarksdale – even though my heart is connected to that stuff – that’s not where I grew up,” Taylor said. “A lot of people ask me where the soul stuff fits in, but everything is a direct descendant of blues music, anyway. County, jazz, everything comes from the blues, but a lot of people don’t get that. So I always like to tell them that I’m playing this music that came out of the late ‘20s and ‘30s and then I jumped over two or three decades into the soul stuff. So that’s how I like to explain it (Blue Soul).”

The casual blues fan might be a bit taken aback to find out that a youngster that called the urban stomping grounds of Philadelphia home could fall under the spell of the deep country blues that are generally associated with the south.

“Remember now, Philly is known for the Gamble and Huff thing (R&B) and Hall and Oates (blue-eyed soul), but Philly was also huge on the folk scene, as well,” Taylor said. “And a lot of people might not know this, but Skip James is buried right outside of Philadelphia.”

Though he’s deeply into playing the blues these days – as he has done for a solid decade now – Taylor still hasn’t turned his back on the sounds of his youth. Instead, he meshes those smooth, soulful-type bits with the gritty, roughed-up blues.

“I definitely like to reference the area (Philly) quite a bit. I literally grew up on that soul music … it was the first music I ever heard, before I started listening to rock and all these other kinds of music. When I was living in west Philadelphia as a small boy, the guys from the Delfonics lived right around the corner from me. And I found out years later that Daryl Hall did, too. He lived near Overbrook High School, which was the high school near the area in west Philly where I lived. It’s the same high school that Will Smith went to. When he (Hall) was a young man doing session work, he lived right across from Overbrook High. So that sound is definitely infused into my music; I love that sound.”

Dips into R&B, rock-n-roll and even a bit of jazz preceded Taylor’s full emersion into the bluesy side of the music dial.

“I started to sit in with a friend of mine – he had these little coffeehouse gigs and I used to sit in with him as a second guitar player and background vocalist – but it wasn’t a blues band, it was more of a singer/songwriter kind of thing. Then I started coming across this music by the modern re-inventors of acoustic blues, people like Eric Bibb and Guy Davis, Keb Mo, Chris Thomas King, Alvin Youngblood Hart … all those guys. Back in the ‘90s in jazz, they had that whole ‘young lions’ of jazz thing going on and I call those guys the ‘young lions of acoustic blues.’ They really brought it (acoustic blues) to the forefront in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. I mean, you were even hearing them on the radio.”

That helped Thomas travel backwards – so to speak – and connect the dots between Bibb, Davis, King and Keb Mo with the elder bluesmen that inspired them to set out down the road playing the blues.

“I’d heard a little bit of the re-release of the Robert Johnson CD, but I didn’t really get it then. As I dove deeper into and sat with it awhile from a different perspective, I got into it and then started to research some of the other older guys, too.”

The way that Taylor works his magic on the acoustic guitar is immediately satisfying and could easily be as on-target at Carnegie Hall as it could at a backwoods juke joint. Every accolade that Taylor has earned for his guitar skills is certainly well-earned. It’s also worth reinforcing that his vocals are every bit as on-point as his picking skills are.

“People say that I sound like Richie Havens when I’m out playing, but I don’t know about that. I think some people may just be looking for an easy comparison, but I don’t think I really sound much like him,” Taylor said. “Keb Mo has always been an influence (vocally), as has Eric Bibb. And I love Mavis Staples and I try and work on her inflection on things with a male voice. There are a lot of singers I admire, some that really don’t come across in my singing, but that I still admire and try to sing some of their tunes; people like Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis Jr., so my influences are pretty wide and varied.”

His youthful days of singing along to a tune predate the first time that young Norman Taylor first picked up a guitar and began to strum.

“My mother used to tell me that I was singing in the high chair. I had a Southern Baptist upbringing and went to church and wanted to be in the church choir. And I remember I was too young for the church choir at one point,” Taylor said with a laugh. “But I really wanted to be in it and eventually did get in. I think that was the initial bump (to getting into performing music). Then I heard the music of the day, you know, stuff like the Jackson 5 and all the Gamble and Huff stuff that was on the radio.”

Taylor’s family later relocated to New Jersey and his musical education continued to develop in his brand-new environs.

“At that time the town (he moved to in New Jersey) was really racially-mixed so I got to hang out with guys who were playing a lot of rock music. There was one guy there that had all of The Beatles’ albums and I’d go over to his house and listen to all that,” said Taylor. “I’d turn him onto Earth Wind & Fire and he’d turn me onto Chicago. Then I’d turn him onto some more soul and he’d turn me onto Led Zeppelin and groups like that. So that’s how I got my rock education.”

What he didn’t know at the time – but sure does today – is that he was also getting a cursory glimpse into the world of the blues at the same time he was getting turned on to the rock sounds of the ‘70s.

“Yeah, it’s interesting, but looking back, the rock tunes that I always liked were the ones that were blues-influenced. I didn’t know that or make the connection at the time, but groups like the Stones – who are still my favorite rock band – had that blues influence,” he said. “That’s what was drawing me to it, but I just didn’t know it back then.”

That intrinsic and deep connection with the blues that Taylor felt before he could even label what it was, has been around since the dawn of time. And as they were back then, the blues can be every bit as liberating and emotionally-healing today as they could back in the 1920s.

“Blues music does – and always has – spoke to the human condition. As long as you’re dealing with pain, suffering, anguish and the loss of a loved one , either by them leaving you, or God forbid, death … all those things make up the blues,” said Taylor. “People in my spiritual community go, ‘Why the blues? We’re working on uplifting things.’ And I say, ‘You sing these songs to lift the condition off of you. That’s why I sing these songs.’ They (forefathers of the blues) were dealing with the racism of Jim Crow and the terrible working environments. Some of them couldn’t even remember their parents or grandparents that were in slavery. They were dealing with all that stuff and this music helped to lift that condition off of them by singing about it. By opening up the wound, they could clean it out, if that makes any sense.”

Taylor has a particular fondness for Gibson guitars (“I have a J-45 and an L-00,” he said), but he also has a couple of Martins, including an Eric Clapton signature model that he had the factory put the same electronics in that Slowhand’s guitar has. All of that should come as no surprise to acoustic aficionados. But what might catch one off-guard is in Taylor’s weapon of choice when it comes to laying down some gutbucket slide.

“I have a couple of Taylors and it’s interesting, but I use one of them for slide. Taylors are known for kind of a bright sound and people don’t normally think of that equating with slide, or with the blues. But I manage the EQ and Taylor’s are such easy guitars to play … I just EQ it right and it sounds really good. Corey Harris is the only other blues guitarist I think that I’ve seen that plays a Taylor on occasion.”

Taylor seems to be right at home – and in the perfect place – on Soul Stew Records, an emerging new label that hails from just outside the D.C. area and has been releasing albums for a couple of years now.

“You’ve got Billy Thompson, who is an amazing guitarist, he kills it. And Mr. Octogenarian – Warner Williams – who may be the last of the original Piedmont players, is on Soul Stew, as is Bob Eike, from up in the Chicago area,” Taylor said. “And we’ve got a young lady named Mary Hott, who’s CD is finished and is about to be released.”

If Taylor has his way, he will make sure that the music-loving masses view acoustic blues as something more than just background music.

“Well, a lot of these festivals don’t want to book acoustic blues, because they seem to prefer more electric, band-type of blues acts. So this (acoustic blues) can be a weird niche to fit into, because sometimes I’m around singer/songwriters, but I’m doing this richly historical material, which they have this thing about doing your own songs,” he said. “But my thing is, do the best song. I mean, Robert Johnson just wrote in such a poetic way. I can’t write like that. I always tell them, look at Frank Sinatra. I don’t think he ever wrote a song … but I try and break it down for them like this; that whole notion (of writing your own songs) came in with The Beatles. All of a sudden, everybody in popular music had to be writing something. They had three great songwriters in the band, one (George Harrison) of which doesn’t get much play because the other two (John Lennon, Paul McCartney) were just so strong.”

If Blue Soul is any indication, it seems that Taylor’s melding of the more traditional sounds of Philadelphia with the more traditional sounds of the Mississippi Delta has managed to create a space for itself into the crowded field of blues music in the 21st century. And Taylor plans to keep working hard to build on what he’s started. That includes plenty more miles on that never-ending highway.

“I’d plan to keep touring – nationally and internationally. I’d like to be a known name in this genre of music they way that Guy (Davis) and Eric (Bibb) are known,” he said. “And ultimately, I’d like to be at the level that Keb Mo is and be really, really known. That would be beautiful, man.”

Editor’s Note: Norman was nominated for Acoustic Blues Album Of the Year. To see a video of his performance at the awards show this year, CLICK HERE

Visit Norman’s website at http://normantaylormusic.com/

Photos by Gary Eckhart © 2014

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