Vince Taylor - Biography

By Eric Brightwell


           Vince Taylor was a British rock ‘n’ roll singer whose most famous song, “Brand New Cadillac,” is most widely recognized by The Clash’s cover on London Calling. When Taylor himself is recalled, it’s more often for his reputation as a leather-clad rebel rocker who went mad and was latterly the primary inspiration for David Bowie’s most enduring creation, the doomed extraterrestrial rock star, Ziggy Stardust.


            Vince Taylor’s origin was in fact on Earth, Isleworth, Middlesex to be exact. He was born Brian Maurice Holden, the youngest of five children, on July 14th, 1939. In 1946, the Holden family left England in search of a better life in the US, embarking on a ship from Liverpool and resettling in New Jersey. There, Mr. Holden found employ coal mine.  Brian, meanwhile, became an avid swimmer. Around 1955, one of Brian’s sisters married one Joe Singer. The family then moved to Los Angeles where Brian enrolled at Hollywood High. [It’s often wrongly reported that at this point his sister married Joe Barbera, of Hanna-Barbera. In fact, Barbera and Holden were married in 1963 after divorcing their first spouses.] 


            Brian expressed an interest in radio, weather reporting and flying. He obtained a pilot’s license whilst still a teen. However, in 1957 he fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll and soon after performed a series of shows at an American Legion hall and at nightclubs along Malibu’s Zuma Beach. His brother-in-law Joe became his manager and that year, Holden accompanied him on a trip to London. Based out of an apartment in Knightsbridge, he and Singer searched for Rock ‘n’ Roll in the British capital and someone named Paul Taylor told them about The 2 i’s, then the preeminent venue for British rock and skiffle. The two attended a performance by, and afterward met, Tommy Steele. Holden formed a backing band from fellow rock ‘n’ roll enthusiasts that he met at the coffee bar including drummer Tony Meehan and bassist Tex Makins, who, along with guitarists Tony Harvey and Tony Sheridan, drummer Brian Bennett and bassist Brian ‘Licorice’ Locking became The Play-Boys. All the British Rock ‘n’ Rollers (e.g. Tommy Steele, Adam Faith, Billy Fury and Marty Wilde) had assumed names and Brian Holden became Vince Taylor, both inspired by the printed slogan on Pall Malls, In hoc signo vinces, and in probable reference to rock ‘n’ roller Gene Vincent and actor Robert Taylor.


            Soon Vince Taylor wasn’t just attending shows at the 2 i’s but performing there as well. Producer Jack Good approached Taylor about appearing on his pioneering rock ‘n’ roll showcase, the ITV television program, Oh Boy! Taylor performed a cover of Ray Smith & Charlie Rich’s “Right behind You Baby,” also his first single (for Parlophone). Although the majority of Taylor’s releases were covers, in performance, he showed considerable charisma onstage. Offstage, charges that Taylor’s behavior was increasing erratic were frequently leveled. His increasing appetite for alcohol and the stimulant phenmetrazine were unlikely to have helped matters. By then, the line-up of The Play-Boys included drummer Bobbie “Clarke” Woodman, bassist John Vance and pianist Alain Le Claire (Tony Meehan joined The Shadows, Tony Sheridan joined the Beat Brothers – later The Beatles – and Tex Makins formed The Beat Boys). In 1959, Taylor released his second single, “Brand New Cadillac” with a new Play-Boys line-up that featured guitarist Joe Moretti and pianist Lou Brian. Although it spent nine weeks on the charts, Parlophone were not suitably impressed and Taylor’s contract quietly expired.


            On August 19th, 1960, Vince Taylor released his next single for Palette Records, “I’ll Be Your Hero” b/w “Jet Black Machine,” the latter another original every bit the equal of his covers.  In 1961, Palette released a follow-up, Chuck Willis’s “Watcha Gonna Do (When Your Baby Leaves You)” backed with Gene Vincent’s “Move over Tiger.” However, due to his increasing unpredictability, The Play-Boys sacked Taylor and continued on as The Bobbie Clarke Noise. They remained friends, however, and when the Noise were booked to play Paris’s Olympia on July 7th and 8th as part of a revue organized by Jack Murray that included Wee Willie Harris, Vince Eager, Dave Sampson, and Nero and The Gladiators. Taylor – who’d never been to France – asked if he could come along. Whilst registering for his passport, Clarke discovered that Taylor, who’d presented himself as part of the American Invasion was in fact as English as Devonshire tea.


            The acts arrived at the Gare du Nord train station fairly early in the morning and only Taylor was willing to pose for a photo shoot, which he did with make-up and clad from head-to-toe in black leather (including gloves) and flossing a gold chain). He appeared in the newspaper as the leader of an Anglo Rock invasion. To the French, Taylor projected an unhinged, rebellious image that made Johnny Hallyday (or Elvis, for that matter) look as tame as a kitten. The black leather ‘n’ medallion look (which both Taylor and Gene Vincent claimed to invented) proved so iconic that Elvis himself later appropriated it for his ’68 comeback performance (as did Alvin Stardust in the ‘70s – who, as Shane Fenton & the Fentones had performed as a peer of Vince Taylor & the Play-Boys in the ‘50s). The shows, with Taylor closing, went over extremely well and Eddie Barclay signed him to a six-year recording deal for his label, Barclay. From then on, Vince Taylor became associated with France and was sometimes even referred to, despite his origins, as “The French Presley.”


            Vince Taylor et ses Play-Boys embarked on a tour of western Europe. Almost immediately tensions around and within the band increased. At a performance in Juan-Les-Pins in August, the audience became violent. In November, an audience at Paris’s Palais de Sports rioted before he even took the stage. As a result, Taylor and his band were banned from several French venues. Radio and TV also ignored Taylor but he and his band filmed several Scopitones, a form of music video that allowed him exposure in cafés. Between performances, the band recorded several EPs; September’s Sweet Little Sixteen EP (1961-Barclay), October’s So Glad You’re Mine EP (1961-Barclay), November’s Shaking All Over EP (1961-Barclay), December’s There’s a Lot of Twistin Going On EP (1961-Barclay) as well as an album of what could by then be considered rock ‘n’ roll standards, Le Rock C'est Ça! (1961-Barclay). More EPs followed with January’s Peppermint Twist EP (1962-Barclay) and March’s Mimi EP (1962-Barclay). They ended their tour in Pigalle, where they played from April 24th to May 26th in a revue called Twist Appeal - L'Erotisme Au Xxe Siecle. It was a two-hour show organized by Nicolas Bataille in which the band played between sketches and alongside exotic dances with sets and costumes designed by Erté.


             After this brief but intense period of  activity, the band once again parted ways with their singer who retired to La Côte d'Azur with his new girlfriend, model Helene April. Guitarist Bob Steel joined French pop singer Claude François, Alain Le Claire returned to England, Harvey and Vance continued with a different line-up as the Play-Boys, and Clarke joined Johnny Hallyday & Les Golden Stars. In February 1964, “Memphis Tennesse” was released. Though credited to Vince Taylor & the Play-Boys, it was in reality the work of Clarke, guitarists Joey Greco and Claude Djaoui, and bassist Ralph Di Pietro.


            Meanwhile, Taylor returned to England and joined The Dragons, an act that backed Gene Vincent for his UK appearances. Now decked in all white leather, Taylor continued to present his backing band as The Play-Boys. After Hallyday was drafted in June, 1964, Clarke returned to England and revived The Bobbie Clarke Noise with guitarist Ralph Danks, bassist Alain Bugby, rhythm guitarist Johnny Taylor and a maracas and tambourine-playing friend of Taylors known (perhaps tellingly) as “Stash” (né Prince Stanislas Kosslowski de Rola).  Managed by Jean-Claude Camus, they replaced The Dragons as Taylor’s backing band and began playing the French provinces.  Their first high profile show was opening for The Rolling Stones on their first performance in France, at the Olympia in April, 1965.


            After adding Ivan Jullien (trumpet) and Bob Garcia (saxophone), Taylor and Stash went back to London for a show where they met Bob Dylan and Nico. After taking acid, speed and alcohol, Taylor seemed to fall apart just as he appeared to be on the brink of a comeback. In front of a full house, on May 23rd, 1965, Taylor took the stage with a towel on his head, proclaiming himself to be the prophet Matthew, he preached in incoherent sermon to the confused audience. Fifteen minutes of failed attempts to perform later, he began destroying the stage. A portion of the audience assumed it was part of the act but the band knew better. An album recorded in February and March, Vince..! (1965-Barclay), was released with fake crowd noise poorly-dubbed over the songs. Another EP, recorded earlier was released in 1966, My Baby EP (Barclay). After his onstage meltdown, Taylor grew long hair, switched to an all-egg diet and joined a religious movement. Danks went on to play with Three Dog Night, Tom Jones, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. Stash later produced The Dirty Strangers which featured Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood. Clark went on to play with Love, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix and Deep Purple before forming Bodast with Steve Howe and Dave Curtis.


            The first Vince Taylor comeback was attempted in 1967 and was generally considered disastrous. Clarke organized a one month tour across France, billed as "Vince Taylor and Bobbie Clarke backed by Les Rockers".  At the first show, Taylor would occasionally sing several songs without incident before stopping and walking off the stage. At the tour’s final performance at Colombes’s Le Caldran, in front of roughly 500 people, Taylor reportedly warned that there was a bad spell and that he couldn’t perform. When the power went out, it seemed to confirm Taylor’s paranoid fear and he shouted that he’d warned them.


            In the autumn of 1969, the French magazines Bonjour les Amis and Disco-Revue launched a campaign to get their readers to write to Barclay requesting more music from Taylor. In 1972, credited to Vince Taylor et le Bobby Clark’s Noise, Vince..! was rereleased without the crowd noise. The albums’ new title, Vince is Alive, Well and Rocking Paris (1972-Barclay), was both a reference to Belgian chanteur Jacques Brel and an effort to dispel rumors about Taylor, including that he had died. Over the next few years, in an effort to cash in on his continuing appeal, Taylor returned to recording and re-recording many of the same songs which were released in a series of albums on different labels including L’homme a la moto (1974-Labrador), Cadillac (1975-Motors MT) (later re-released at It’s Been a Lonely Night), Vince Taylor (1975-MFP), In ’72, ’74 and ’75, unscrupulous parties pressured the confused and easily exploited Taylor into performing live.


            Taylor was squired to Paris where he became a dishwasher at a restaurant on Place de la Contrescarpe, Paris. Occasionally he sang for customers, accompanied by the restaurant’s pianist. Before a screening of The Story of Elvis Presley, Taylor performs backed by a revival band, Matchbox. Vince Talyor “Live 1977” (1979-Jacques Pierret). Jean “Charles” Smaine became his manager and oversaw the creation of a new backing band. With the Big Beat label, Taylor re-entered the studio and released Luv (1980-Big Beat Records) which produced a novelty single, “Space Invaders.” In 1983, he moved to Vaud, Switzerland and on November 5th, he married Nathalie Minster and they settled down in Epalinges and then moved to Lautry where he worked as an airplane mechanic until his death from lung cancer at the age of 52 on August 28th, 1991.


            In 1997, Vince Taylor and the Play-Boys triumphant live performance opening for the Stones was finally released as Vince Live at the Olympia + 12 Bonus Tracks (2004-Big Beat Records). The bands EPs were remastered and gathered together on the 2-CD set, Periode Barclay Complète 1961-1965 (Magic Record). Aside from being covered by The Clash and inspiring David Bowie, Vince Taylor has also been mentioned in song by Golden Earring and Van Morrison. Taylor’s son, Ty Holden, was in the band Crown of Thorns until he became a DJ in 1988.

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