music feature
October '03

 

Myra Taylor: remixing a career
by Deborah Young

The hip-hop generation sometimes seems infatuated with remixing. Sean "P. Diddy" Combs has bragged about being the inventor of remixes. Last year, he even released a CD with the boast as title, P. Diddy and Bad Boy Records Present: We Invented the Remix. Remixes braid old and new elements into existing songs, creating new and sometimes-attractive musical weaves. Remixes can lure veteran musicians with possibilities of multiple song rebirths and inspire newbies with dreams of longevity. Myra Taylor's story has the same appeal. At 86, the Bonner Springs-born swing singer still auditions and performs. Her career appears to be in remix mode.

Last year, the festival king was Provine Hatch Jr. (“Little Hatch”), now deceased. Lingering over a photo of the gaunt blues harmonica player and singer, Gilley reminisced about how happy Little Hatch seemed as he posed with a large cake. The cake marked the celebration of Little Hatch’s 80th birthday.

Myra Taylor steals the stage at the Unity Temple on the Plaza. (photo by Evie Quarles)


In late October she appeared at the Mutual Musicians Foundation on 18th and Highland to audition for a spot in next summer’s Poconos Blues Festival. She sat in the corner of the room nearest the white grand piano wearing an elegant beige two-piece dress with sparkles and gripping a microphone.

Accompanied by a trio of piano, bass and drums, Taylor interspersed snippets of songs with conversation. Her love of storytelling was immediately obvious.

One of the stories she told that night detailed how her husband proposed to her in the 1930s. He’d taken her for a walk. During the walk he sang a song he’d written for her. Taylor launched into the song, “If you lova me like I lova you and we both lova the same …” The song was a proposal, but she didn’t get it at first, she recalled with a laugh.

Taylor’s audition that night also included a rendition of the standard “Sunny Side of the Street,” including a humorous and very good Louis Armstrong impersonation. Taylor also performs “Sunny Side” from her 2001 recording Myra Taylor: My Night To Dream, along with other standards and original compositions such as “The Spider and the Fly” and “Take It Easy Greasy.”

My Night To Dream represents another accomplishment in a career that has spanned more than half a century. Taylor performed in Kansas City during the ‘30s and ‘40s, and later in many international arenas.

During a recent interview at her home, Taylor reminisced about her long career, which includes appearances in movies such as the 1970s Dribble, stints on the television show The Jeffersons, and gigs in Mexico, Germany and Zaire. For a time, Taylor owned a nightclub in Frankfurt.

Pictures and awards dot the walls of her modest apartment. Among them are Living Blues Magazine awards honoring her as 2002 Comeback Artist of the Year and 2002 Best Blues Artist (female). On a coffee table in her living room there’s a bound book containing pictures and newspaper clippings chronicling her career. The book’s cover features the cover art of her 1946 Mercury recording “The Spider and The Fly.”

Taylor performed in Mexico from 1949 to 1959 at The Chinese Palace (Palacio Chino in Spanish). She says she still remembers many of the people she met there and the pet names they gave to her, usually ending with “cito.” The names sounded so sweet, she said. Then in her witty and playful style, she admitted being highly amused to learn that when translated to English most of those pet names didn’t seem very complimentary. For instance, she said, one of the pet names given to her translated to “pug nose,” but with “cito” on the end it didn’t sound so bad.

She also performed for the USO. Taylor proudly announced that she’d performed for troops during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. She said she joined the USO in 1944 and from 1944 to 1946, she performed with pianist Eubie Blake. On one occasion, she sang before 17,000 troops.

With all of her experience traveling and living abroad, it’s no surprise that now that she’s home she’d like to see a more multicultural 18th and Vine district. Back in the 1930s, Taylor said, the district was “busy, busy, busy.” Now, she said, “It’s dead, dead, dead.”

Taylor said 18th Street has nothing to offer today except the Blue Room. In her opinion the area needs variety, meaning clubs that offer various musical styles from various cultures and perhaps even a Chinese restaurant.

In other words, the 18th & Vine district needs a remix, a shot of new and a pinch of old to revitalize it. But based on her recent experience, Taylor understands that successful remixes don’t always come easily. Her manager, Dawayne Gilley, said that it’s been tough for her to get gigs in town. He partly credits the economy for the downturn in club gigs.

“Her biggest stumbling block,” Gilley said, “is that she’s outlived her generation of performers.” He explained that in the ‘40s, 10- and 15-piece bands backed Taylor. Because of the economics of today’s club scene, small combos are typical now. Plus, the musicians that understand traditional swing have dwindled.

Still, Gilley would like to book one weekly gig for Taylor. In a recent phone interview, he recalled the day in the mid-‘90s that he discovered Taylor could still sing. They were in his car when she started to sing one of her compositions, “Mama I’m in Trouble.” Gilley said he was driving at the time but had to pull the car over because the song “blew me away.”

“There’s nobody left alive who can do what (Myra Taylor) does,” he said.

 


              
              
                 

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