Gene Taylor, a boogie-woogie blues piano player and singer, who as a teenager in Los Angeles performed with such blues legends as Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker, and later as a longtime member of The Blasters and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, died Saturday (February 20, 2021). The news of Taylor’s death at age 68 was announced by musician Dave Alvin, who noted that his friend and longtime bandmate in the Blasters had died in his sleep in Austin, Tex.
“At 17 he had a full beard, could easily buy booze, smoked cigars and, most importantly, was already a boogie/blues piano master,” wrote Alvin in his tribute. “All of us Blasters were always odd ducks and odd balls and Gene was no different. Through the years we could fight verbally and physically but we never lost sight of who we were, where we came from, who we learned from and who we loved.”
Taylor was born in Norwalk, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb, on July 2, 1952. At the age of eight, he came under the influence of a family of blues and boogie-woogie players who moved in next door. After starting out with the drums, he switched to the piano and the guitar at age 10. He learned very quickly playing by ear and, at age 11, he began performing with his best friend Jim Payne and Jim’s parents. They worked occasional neighborhood functions, playing country music.
Having lost both his parents and brother by the age of 15, Taylor was firmly committed to the life of a musician. After obtaining his driver’s license at age 16—and looking much older, thanks to an already-receding hairline—he started finding local work with such L.A.-based blues legends as Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulson and Pee-Wee Crayton. In his own words, “Well, I was playing good boogie-woogie and pretty fair blues at this point, and going to blues jams with my fake ID. Since I was young and would work cheap, I was hired by these guys sometimes as a fill-in on local gigs for the older piano players who weren’t available or wanted too much money!” During this period, he met both James Harman and Phil and Dave Alvin—who later formed The Blasters.
After working for Harman during most of 1974, Taylor was asked to join Canned Heat, which he did until 1976—giving him his first international exposure.
In 1978, Taylor moved to Toronto, Canada, to play music with his friend Morgan Davis, a well-known Canadian bluesman. He was based in Canada for some time, though he continued to perform with other artists world-wide. During his years there he played and recorded with many musicians, including Ronnie Hawkins. During this period he also was a member of The Amos Garrett, Doug Sahm, Gene Taylor Band—releasing a Juno Award-winning album, The Return of the Formerly Brothers (1987) and another recording, Live in Japan (1990).
While working with James Harman again, in 1981, Taylor was asked to join the Blasters–a roots band that blended rockabilly, early rock ‘n’ roll, and country influences–that was composed of four friends from his teenage years (Phil and Dave Alvin, John Bazz and Bill Bateman). He played with them for four years, recording four critically acclaimed albums including their 1981 self-titled release.
In between Blasters engagements, Taylor also toured with Rick Nelson. In 1986, Taylor released his first solo album, Handmade. Veteran record label executive Bill Bentley shared a story of how the album was made.
“Gene and Blasters’ drum whiz Bill Bateman showed up one day at Amigo Studio in North Hollywood and off we went,” he wrote in his tribute. “The album was going to be just piano and drums. What else did you need when the musicians were those two? As the day turned to night, things got good and steamy in the studio. Around three in the morning, all that was left to drink was vodka and Squirt, and that was good enough for Gene. He’d stripped down to his boxer shorts and hightop army boots, playing the piano like his life depended on it. Because it probably did.
“After adding Canned Heat’s bassist Larry Taylor, Sheiks of Shake harmonica ace Louie Lista and Earth, Wind & Fire’s tenor player Andrew Woolfolk later to a few songs, the album was done. Not many people heard it, and I learned I just didn’t have the patience to produce records, even an album that took two days. But boy was it fun trying.”
The Fabulous Thunderbirds, fall, 1995. L-R: Willie J. Campbell, Gene Taylor, Kim Wilson, Fran Christina, Kid Ramos
After leaving the Blasters, Taylor worked around Canada as a solo artist and with the Downchild Blues Band—a band that, years before, had inspired their fellow-Canadian Dan Aykroyd to create the Blues Brothers. He did more Blasters tours in 1991-1992.
In 1993, Taylor relocated to Austin, Tex., and joined the Fabulous Thunderbirds, continuing with them until 2006, while touring constantly and recording two studio albums and one live album with the band, and on two of T-Bird leader Kim Wilson’s solo CDs. In between, Taylor released a self-titled CD and participated in all the tours and recordings of the “Original Blasters Reunion” from 2002-2003.