|Hound Dog Taylor illustration by Tom Vadakan|
The first time I heard Hound Dog Taylor it felt like I got hit with a seventy pound hammer. I was in a downtown office sorting files and a coworker had placed the cassette tape into a cracked boom box. When the sound poured around the small space, I stood stunned, unable to place exactly what I was hearing. I stopped sorting for a few minutes and listened to the raw, see-saw swing of Hound Dog’s thunderous guitar boogie. The tune was “She’s Gone” off of the Alligator Record’s 1971 release entitled, Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers. The sincerity and passion of the tune smashed me in my face, and sat proudly in the pit of my stomach.
Growing up in Chicago in the 1980’s, blues music was something of an afterthought. The blues was no longer the siren’s song of the Southside, it was relegated to sports bars, and towny taverns filled with fat, white mustachioed men. Growing up I’d listened to Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf on late night radio programs and heavy vinyl records. I had always liked the blues, but as I got older and more cynical about music, the blues seemed to get placed on the back burner. As I grew older it seemed like the blues was more the music of beer drinking white guys, than prophetic black storytellers. Somewhere in my mind the blues had become a parody of itself, devoid of real feeling or expression. That was until I heard Hound Dog and his guitar that sounds like it’s being played through a can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup.
Born in Natchez, Mississippi in 1915, Taylor’s personal bio reads like an imaginative, American folkloric legend. Crazy stories buzz around Taylor like bumble bees in springtime. It has been said that he was born with six fingers on each hand, and that he was kicked out of his father’s house at gunpoint when he was only 9 years old. While these stories are speculative at best, he did go to live with his older sister when he was a young boy, God only knows if this was because of a shotgun toting father. He began learning guitar in his teens, but didn’t start playing seriously until he was in his twenties. As a young man he toured all across the Mississippi Delta, playing guitar and piano, and performing on notable programs like the King Biscuit Flour Radio Show. In 1942, Taylor found his way to Chicago after a brush with the Ku Klux Klan and an irascible white woman. While in Chicago he gave up the blues in favor of stable employment, and worked for the next 15 years in various odd jobs. In 1957, he decided to become a full time blues man and hone his unique slide guitar style. Known for his boisterous live performances, Taylor soon became a big hit on the burgeoning Chicago electric blues scene. Influenced by the raucous style of fellow bluesman, Elmore James, Taylor gigged religiously and was often said to play “all-nighters” in any number of smoky Chicago clubs. Taylor’s guitar tone was legendary, and it was said he could create distortion and feeling like no one else, partially due to the fact that he only played through cheap guitar amps. The combination of the crackly speakers with Taylor’s passionate style garnered the bluesman a dedicated following in a cutthroat scene. In 1969 Hound Dog met a record store clerk named, Bruce Iglauer while playing a gig at a Chicago blues bar. Iglauer would become Taylor’s manager and help him record and release his debut album.
That debut album was what I heard pouring put of those speakers. Hound Dog Taylor wasn’t just a bluesman, he was more of a blues alliteration. A man who soaked up music like a thirsty towel and lived in a world of his own creation. On that afternoon, after hearing Taylor rip through his bars with more passion than a loose bull, and more grit than an asphalt black top, I redefined the blues for myself, and I haven’t looked back.