A FEW MINUTES WITH… Kate Taylor
By Don Wilcock
She’s the third of five kids in a very famous musical family that includes brothers James and
Livingston. “Liv calls us circus folk. It’s in the genes, this kind of ham gene,” says swinger-songwriter Kate Taylor.
Like her most famous brother James Taylor, who is often referred to as “Sweet Baby James” after his defining album, Kate is known as “Sister Kate,” a reference to her best known album released 45 years ago. She makes her very first appearance at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs on Friday night (March 4).
“I’m so happy to be getting into that room. It’s been kind of a dream of mine for a long time,” she says. “My daughter had spent a couple years at Skidmore. And I had never stepped foot in the place, but I drove by and fantasized. I’ve spoken with (Caffe Lena manager) Sarah Craig a few times over the years, but never worked up anything until now.”
She will be performing with guitarist Steve Mayone and drummer Sam Zucchini locally of the Zucchini Brothers. “We’ve worked together for about 10 years now or so. Sam, my friend Steve Mayone, and I do this three-man thing. Sam has made up this rig where he’s got a djembe, a bodhran and a little kind of small, toy tambourine. And he makes a lot of sound out of that little rig. So the three of us stand up there, and Steve plays the guitar, a beautiful guitar player.”
Early on Kate was my favorite of the Taylors, who all emerged onto the granola-pop scene in the late ’60s and early ’70s. While brother James is often credited with setting the stage for the singer-songwriter movement and brother Liv followed close behind, Kate came across as having a slightly edgier feel on Sister Kate. While her brothers may have been listening to Greenwich Village folkies, she was more into the R&B sound of the day. Sister Kate contained “Country Comforts” by Elton John & Bernie Taupin; “Handbags and Gladrags” by Manfred Mann’s Mike D’Abo (with back-up vocals by Carole King, Linda Ronstadt and Merry Clayton; and “Jesus Is Just All Right,” which became a Doobie Brothers hit two years later.
“Growing up in the south, it was part of the musical landscape,” she explains. “When we were kids, I think it just really got infused in there, and what’s not to love in rhythm and blues? But Chapel Hill, where we grew up, was a university town, so there were acts that came through that would play at the frat houses every weekend. You were hearing these amazing R&B groups that would go around the south at the different universities and play in the different frat houses. Those were fun and really raw and crazy, and then, of course, there would be the more – Ray Charles and James Brown would come to Memorial Hall. Then there was the Appalachian music, the bluegrass, the country music, white gospel, black gospel… It was a good epicenter to be, in terms of musical environment.”
Kate released two more albums including Kate Taylor with the hit “It’s in His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song),” a duet with brother James. Then in 1979, Kate pretty much disappeared from sight for 23 years to bring up her two daughters.
“I could tour with one daughter, but two made it impossible to do any serious traveling, but in that time I did have a couple of configurations of bands with Arlen Roth and Tony Garnier and a couple of other players, but mostly Alex and Hughy and I – my brothers Alex and Hugh. So the early ’80s, we toured. We worked with that group for a couple years. Then, I had my second daughter, and that was it.
“I couldn’t really do any more extensive traveling, but I did have folks I could call on, and if I had a chance to put a show together, do something, I would call everybody up. It’s kind of tough when it’s so few and far between to just kind of re-invent the wheel and get something up and running and then it – but you know I’m glad – I was happy for any opportunity that I had to play, but they were few and far between.
“Then in ’95 I guess we’d been working some with Tony Garnier. He was on the road as music director and bass player for Bob Dylan, and Dylan was on tour all the time. So it was very rare to have Tony available, but we heard on the radio that Dylan had to cancel a tour because he had gotten some serious infection in his heart, so my husband Charlie sat bolt upright in bed. He knew that Tony was going to be free and said, ‘We’ve got to make a record.’”
Written mostly by her husband Charlie Witham, the resulting album Beautiful Road featured such immensely talented musicians as Larry Campbell, Tony Garnier, Tom Hambridge, Chuck Leavell, Mavis Staples and Kate’s brother James Taylor. Just as it was being finished, Charlie passed away, leaving as his legacy an album of songs including the title number featuring his wife singing:
“The wind whistles through my window every last time
Wheels turn and spin like the thoughts on my mind
I’m thinking about the places and everyone I’ve known
all the closeness and good things of beautiful road.”
“It definitely put a deeper spin on most of those tunes there,” says Kate, “because Charlie had written about six of those songs on that record. He also had written a song called ‘I Will Fly’ on the record which was about Arlen Roth. We had become quite friendly with Arlen and Arlen’s wife and two daughters in that period of time. Arlen was a Telecaster player, an amazing guitar player.
“Charlie had written this song about Arlen’s daughter and wife, who were killed in a car accident. We’d just about finished the record. There were about two little tweaks on the mix somewhere that we needed to get done, and that was it. It was done, and Charlie died. My husband died. He had been sick. That was another thing that was making things hard. He was quite infirm and he died. Tony and I finished it up.
“It was Charlie’s life’s mission to get it done. We didn’t know his demise was imminent, but he just really wanted to get this thing to a place where he felt good about it before he checked out and lo and behold, sure enough, he died. But life, what an incredible thing…”
Kate recorded another album Fair Time released in 2009. It was the first album to contain all originals. She rocks some and reels more with a beautiful voice that ranges from Linda Ronstadt pop-rock to Loretta Lynn lite. And, yes, it’s in her genes. She’s got that Taylor-made sound that the world loves to love. She’s back in the game, but she looks back with a wistful contentment about a life where her children came first.
“There was just no choice. It wasn’t like a choice. It was just what I did. I wanted to be – that
was just what was going on in my life, and fortunately I had those musicians I worked with every so often, and Charlie was writing songs.
“You start to learn to play guitar when you’re 13, and your mom is downstairs cooking supper. Then you’re the mom downstairs cooking supper. But at the same time it was something I’d hoped to be able to do, and so we got a little bit of that in, and we raised my greatest hits, my two daughters and, you know, onward and upward.
“Now, I’m just grateful and happy for any opportunities I get to play. I always learn something, and it’s always fun.”
Her daughters are now 40 and 34, and she has two granddaughters who are five and five months.
“They’re like the blue ribbon of life.”