West Side blues drummer Larry Hill Taylor has been called a “21st century griot” – a man who carries the stories of African-Americans in his bones, in his drums and in his voice.
Taylor, 55, is on a speaking tour in the Chicago area to promote his book, Stepson of the Blues: a Chicago Song of Survival, co-authored by “Barrelhouse” Bonni McKeown, who’s also a musician herself.
Published in May 2010, the book took three years to write, and is a history of Chicago, told from the perspective of an African-American child growing up on the West Side in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
Taylor’s mother, Vera, married blues-guitar pioneer Eddie Taylor in the early ’60s. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards pays homage to Eddie Taylor’s playing, as a guitarist for Jimmy Reed, in his new book Life.
But unlike the British bands that repackaged the “Chicago Sound” and earned millions selling it back to American youth in the 1960s, original innovators like Taylor never had financial success with their music. Many blues pioneers fell victim to theft of their intellectual property and songwriting royalties.
Taylor hung around Chicago bluesmen as a child. He learned to drum on pots and
pans, imitating drummers he’d seen at the old Maxwell Street Market. Musicians like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Hubert Sumlin would visit his mother’s North Lawndale home and stay for her cooking.
But blues music is about hardship, and Taylor’s book chronicles post-Great Migration hard times on the West Side. Taylor was born to a 12-year-old mother, and was raised primarily by his then-24-year-old grandmother. His parents allegedly abused him, and he ran with the Conservative Vice Lords of 12th Street gang in the early ’60s-Taylor claimed the group was more of a social-service organization than a criminal enterprise. He also joined the Nation of Islam at one point. Drugs, addiction, and struggle are all part of his story.
This excludes the difficulties imposed by the music industry.
McKeown said Taylor was overlooked by Chicago blues promoters and the media.
“In the last 30 years the pay situation [for blues players] has deteriorated,” she said. Partly to blame are new city regulations that closed down smaller “blues feeder clubs,” as well as a relocated, city-run Maxwell Street Market. The famous bazaar was once home to many a street-corner blues virtuoso.
McKeown said she jumped into promoting him – with no prior knowledge of the music industry – because she thought he would be a success. But she says Larry’s outspokenness has made him few friends in the local music scene. “He told a French magazine that some Chicago club owners paid with drugs instead of money, and that got him in trouble.”
He’s had some bright spots in his career: Taylor toured Germany in 1977 with
the offspring of other famous Chicago bluesmen; he also organized the Crossroads stage for the 2008 Chicago Blues Fest. He currently works semi-regularly with his blues and soul group, but he hasn’t reaped what he thinks the music industry owes him.
“These hands, this voice, these legs are worth millions,” he said.
He blames greed and racism for pitting blues musicians against each other and driving down pay. “I could have been a superstar a long time ago,” he said, adding that successful blues artists like Buddy Guy do not encourage African-American protégés.
“Buddy’s trying to kill the blues,” Taylor said. “He thinks when him and B.B. King die, the blues is gonna die.”
Taylor, though, doesn’t think so-quoting blues great Willie Dixon: “Blues is the root, the rest is the fruit.”