Guitarists who first heard Albert King went back to their guitars to bend strings. Those who first heard B.B. King started to work on their vibrato. And lots of blues fans, upon hearing Howlin’ Wolf, went to work on their vocal growl. But when you heard Hound Dog Taylor, your only takeaway—your only choice, really—was to try to copy the energy. Because the sound was all his.
It’s why, almost 50 years after he died, he still has his acolytes. His music has been covered by everyone from R.E.M.’s Peter Buck to Stevie Ray Vaughan. In fact, in 2021 GA-20 released a tribute album dedicated to his songs, GA-20 Does Hound Dog Taylor: Try It…You Might Like It! And that appreciation is what led Matt Rogers to write a biography of the beloved artist, Goodnight Boogie: A Tale of Guns, Wolves & the Blues of Hound Dog Taylor, which features an introduction by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.
Rogers does a nice job of humanizing the mysterious Taylor. While social media forces us to know every thought of artists, big and small, Taylor is from an era when musicians were more shielded from the public at large, while also coming from a genre that didn’t (and still doesn’t) receive much mainstream media coverage. It’s resulted, for better or for worse, in our knowing blues artists from that time mostly by their music and not by their personalities.
Taylor’s persona was that of a wild man on stage, performing while seated on a metal folding chair, muttering to himself and telling jokes only he understood, while his band, the Houserockers (guitarist Brewer Phillips and drummer Ted Harvey), locked in behind him in an relenting swirl of blues that was equal parts Delta and electric, yet also futuristic. That sound is the tell that Taylor was a genius, responsible for music that still feels ahead of its time, decades after he created it.
Rogers gets into Taylor’s turbulent childhood, where his stepfather kicked him out of his home as a child, his mom allowing it to happen. The KKK eventually chased him out of his Mississippi town, bringing Taylor to Chicago. Those scars never healed and while they didn’t explicitly inform his songwriting, they were at the heart of his drinking and interpersonal relationships, including his tumultuous relationship with fellow guitarist Phillips. There’s no Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers without that trauma.
While Taylor came up during the time of classic electric Chicago blues, his sound isn’t associated with those artists, like Wolf, Elmore James and Muddy Waters. However, Rogers has a lot of fascinating stories about how much Taylor interacted with those classic artists, sitting in with and hanging around with them. It makes sense, given the manageable size of the Chicago blues scene, but it’s still a lot to process. What did Waters sound like with Taylor backing him? What did he and Wolf talk about?
Rogers maintains that Taylor gave James the inspiration to cover James’ classic “Dust My Broom” (written by Robert Johnson), which Taylor actually cut before James released his version. He also writes that Freddy King’s classic “Hideaway” riff originated with “Taylor’s Boogie.” These kinds of stories litter blues (and rock), and while it’s impossible to determine the truth of them, they’re still fun to read.
The book also features a surprising amount of George Thorogood, who played some gigs with Taylor and struck up an unlikely friendship with the blues legend. Rogers points out that his path to Taylor came through a Taylor shout-out on Thorogood’s 1986 Live album.
This book is a no-brainer for rabid Hound Dog fans but even casual ones will appreciate learning more about a fascinating artist and his band. Rogers approaches Taylor through a light psychological lens, which I loved, but I know is frustrating to some people who want more of a just-the-facts approach. But to understand Taylor’s often-unusual life and career choices, you need to get into his head.
It’s a very small point, but I was a little disappointed in the photos, though, which didn’t offer up much new. However, the cover image alone, of a young Taylor at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, during the 1967 American Folk Blues Festival, is worth the price of admission.
Except, of course, that book covers are free to look at. But the words inside, which aren’t free, are well-worth music lovers’ time and energy. Rogers does a great job capturing why Taylor’s music still obsesses so many of us.
The Review: 9.5/10