Hound Dog Taylor - Biography

In the early ‘70s, Hound Dog Taylor was the king of good-time blues. His trio The HouseRockers – with guitarist Brewer Phillips and drummer Ted Harvey – was tearing up the clubs on Chicago’s South Side when the new blues label Alligator Records brought their sound to a fresh young audience.

A canine-featured slide guitarist with six fingers on his left hand -- a polydactyl, he removed the extra digit on his right hand with a razor -- Taylor drew his style and a good portion of his repertoire from the work of Elmore James, who preceded him on the Chicago scene. But while James’ performances were deep and emotion-wracked, Taylor for the most part eschewed slow tunes and concentrated on filling the dance floor with danceable, boogie-infused music. Stomping his foot and wearing a face-splitting grin, he ingratiated his way to worldwide popularity with infectious energy, and supplied a successful launch for Alligator, which swiftly became the best-known independent blues imprint of its day.

Taylor’s primal, sonically distorted style and unusual bass-free, two-guitar lineup would attract young acolytes in the ‘90s, when blues-punk bands like The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in New York, The Oblivians in Memphis, and The Gibson Brothers in Columbus took a page from his book.

As a musician, Taylor was a late bloomer, and his career didn’t take off until he was in his fifties. He was born Theodore Roosevelt Taylor on April 12, 1917, in Natchez, MS. He didn’t begin playing the guitar until he was 20; working as a sharecropper during the day, he plied his musical trade in the Delta jukes at night. The region remained dangerous for black men, and after the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on his lawn, he became part of the great Northern migration from the Deep South and fled for Chicago in 1942.

Taylor graduated from performing on the street in the South Side’s teeming open-air Maxwell Street market -- where he shared the pavement with contemporaries like singer-guitarist Robert Nighthawk -- to work in local blues clubs. But his early recording career came to naught. During the ‘60s he cut a couple of unnoticed singles for the small blues labels Firma and Bea & Baby, and a date for Chicago blues power Chess went unissued. He toured principally as a sideman; footage of the 1967 American Folk Blues Festival shot in Europe shows him backing harmonica ace Little Walter.

By 1969, Taylor was working regular Sunday gigs at the club Florence’s on the South Side with a primal combo that included former construction worker Phillips, who supplied bass lines on his six-string Fender, and ex-shipping clerk Harvey, who cranked out up-tempo boogies and shuffles with a glower. The music was nothing fancy, but the ebullience of Taylor, who cranked out his stomping sets on a cheap Japanese guitar fed through a busted-up amp, was not to be denied.

The HouseRockers attracted the enthusiastic attention of Bruce Iglauer, a recent Cincinnati émigré who worked as a clerk at the Jazz Record Mart, a North Side blues retailer operated by Bob Koester, owner of the prominent indie label Delmark Records. Iglauer suggested that Koester record an album with Taylor; when his boss demurred, Iglauer cut and mixed a cheaply capitalized LP with Taylor’s group in just two nights, and made it the first title on his new Alligator label.

Designed to approximate the raucous atmosphere of a Florence’s jam, Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers (1971) became a hit in the blues market; it included the Elmore James covers “Held My Baby Last Night” and “It Hurts Me Too” and the rampaging Taylor original “Give Me Back My Wig,” which became a perennially popular fixture of his set. More importantly, the album launched the band – which was soon managed by Iglauer – as a popular club attraction in the Midwest and on the East Coast; Taylor even managed to tour through Australia and New Zealand.

A very similarly styled, and some would say superior, follow-up, Natural Boogie, came in 1973. Capitalizing on Taylor’s reputation as a club-shredder, Iglauer prepared a live set, Beware of the Dog!, for release in 1975. At that point, the future of the HouseRockers was in question: During a drunken argument with Brewer Phillips at the guitarist’s apartment, Taylor shot his band mate twice with a .22 rifle. By the time Phillips recovered, Taylor had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He apologized to Phillips from a hospital bed before dying on Dec. 17, 1975, at the age of 58. The live album, drawn from Chicago and Cleveland radio performances, was issued posthumously in 1976.

Acknowledging the import of Taylor’s band for his company, Iglauer took “Genuine Houserocking Music” as the promotional rubric for Alligator. In 1982 the label issued a HouseRockers album of that title that compiled previously unissued sides by Taylor; the set scored a Grammy nomination. The company followed with Hound Dog Taylor – A Tribute (1998), on which the guitarist’s material was essayed by friends, fans, and label mates like Son Seals, Sonny Landreth, Luther Allison, and George Thorogood. Another package of unreleased HouseRockers music, Release the Hound, arrived in 2004.

Hound Dog Taylor was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984. Had he been around to accept the accolade, he no doubt would have been flattered and more than a little surprised: As the guitarist himself was fond of saying, “When I die, they’ll say, ‘He couldn’t play shit, but he sure made it sound good!’”

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