Gene, Gene, the piano machine
Taylor brings fellow ex-Blasters to town, promises much loudness
Knocking around a condo some friends own in Austin, Texas, piano man Gene Taylor is on the line talking about his upcoming gig at the Palms, but the self-diagnosed “circular thinker” frequently goes off topic. So to get to an illustrious career that includes stints with the Blasters, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Ricky Nelson, Ronnie Hawkins, T-Bone Walker, Canned Heat and, now, the Gene Taylor Blues Band—featuring all the original Blasters except Phil Alvin and the late Lee Allen—we must trudge through asides about his rocket-scientist cousin; his dear friend’s brother who was a Sacramento Bee columnist; his Canadian manager’s wife’s sister, who knows Ryan(?); the 330-watt amplifier Blasters drummer Bill Bateman built him (“Man, that’s louder than shit!”); George Gershwin being influenced by some black guy making $20 a week playing society functions for the Astors and Vanderbilts; and how the phone he’s talking on is among five he owns, but one is merely a phone book because he left its charger at home in Belgium.
Obviously not helping matters are the contents of the glass he’s balancing in his other hand: gin and tonic.
On the phone, he’s all over the place. On stage, he’s all bidness, banging out boogie woogie like he’s a time machine set for 1938. Given his attention disorder and lack of musical family background, it’s amazing Taylor learned the piano solely by ear, let alone made such a comfortable living at it that he’s never filled out a job application.
“I dunno, man, when I heard someone playing boogie woogie really good, man, that was it,” the SoCal native says. “You know what it is? There was a time I had to focus really hard to figure out how to play the thing. For my little slice of the pie, my little area of expertise, I’m tough to beat.”
He regrets never getting formal training (“There is all kinds of music you could put me into and I’d be as lost as you’d be.”), and is more confident about his musical-history knowledge, also self-taught. Taylor pestered his father to get him recordings of musicians he read about at the library. At 11, his chops took him to every bar, VFW post, country club, women’s club and American Legion hall around.
Thanks to high-school garage-band gigs in the late 1960s, he found himself in the employ of brothers Phil and Dave Alvin. Singer-guitarist Phil, guitarist-songwriter (and future Grammy winner) Dave, drummer Bateman and bass player John Bazz formed the Blasters in 1979, but they quickly added Taylor, future Los Lobos baritone saxophone player Steve Berlin and rhythm-and-blues sax legend Lee Allen to fill out their sound. Their blend of R&B, blues, rockabilly and early rock ’n’ roll drew a hardcore fan base, critical raves and airplay. But the Blasters never scored mainstream success during an era dominated by the rise of MTV. The Alvins don’t have mugs for video.
So Taylor bounced around L.A., Toronto and Europe playing with legends, established bands and by himself, in bars, for, well, gin-and-tonic money. Now blasting back on stage with ex-Blasters, he’s concerned.
“I’m a little worried about this band because Dave wants to rehearse. To put it in the vernacular of the Wayans brothers, ‘Homey don’t rehearse.’ I’d rather jack off a mountain lion with a hand full of fish hooks than rehearse.”
He recalls the Blasters once being stuck in rehearsals for three hours before his mentor Lee Allen piped up with: “'Damn, why is it so goddamned hard to play the blues? Guys, it’s three chords. It’s not going to change. It’s gonna be a 12-part blues, so just shut the fuck up and know where to come in.’”
Rehearsal or no, Taylor vows to be in control. Then, to the accompaniment of clinking cocktail ice, he wonders, “What if for this I get some Marshall stacks, run the piano through it and just play louder than fuck?”
Good question. Here’s another: