Back cover of his autobiography: Alias Vince Taylor
Vince, just after his mind was blown….
The best rock’n’roll stories are the ones where the performer goes nuts or dies. This way we don’t have to watch their heads get soft in public, or see them make fools of themselves trying to keep up with the times. This is one of those stories where the guy goes crazy. Boy, did he.
Vince Taylor was probably born off kilter, but rock’n’roll and LSD didn’t help matters. Born Brian Maurice Holden in July of 1939 in Isleworth, Middlesex, England, his family moved to New Jersey, USA in 1946 where his father got a job as a coal miner. Coal mines in New Jersey? See? This story is already weird. Fast forward to 1958. Brian had an older sister named Shelia who moved to Hollywood and married Joe Barbera, half of the animation team of Hanna-Barbera who had just hit it big with the Huckleberry Hound cartoon. With such a stroke of luck, young Brian, who fostered fantasies of turning himself into the next Elvis realized that back home in England there wasn’t much competition and with his greasy, good looks stardom would be assured. In one telling of the story he hears a Tommy Steele record and says “If that passes as rock’n’roll I can’t miss”, or something like that. Bankrolled by his sister’s new found wealth, young Brian set his plan in motion.
Renaming himself Vince Taylor (in an homage to one of his heroes– Gene Vincent), Vince, his sister Shelia, and his newly acquired manager Joe Singer headed east, landing in London in the summer of 1958 where he was soon a regular at the 2i’s coffee bar the incubator of British rock’n’roll (ironic for a country with so many pubs and so imbued with booze culture that rock’n’roll would emerge from a coffee bar). Taylor put together the first of what would be dozens of back up bands, this one featuring Tony Sheridan (who gave the Beatles their first recording session) on guitar and future Shadows rhythm section Brian “Licorice” Locking on bass and Brian Bennett on drums. Vince was signed by Parlaphone, and his first single, a rather pedestrian reading of Ray Smith’s “Right Behind You Baby” went nowhere, but his second platter– “Brand New Cadillac” was and is one of the pinnacles of British rock’n’roll. Based on a riff that sounds like a cross between Peter Gunn and “Lucille”, it is easily the best pre-Beatles British rock’n’roll record (beating out the other two contenders Johnny Kidd’s “Shakin’ All Over” and Cliff Richard’s “Move It” on sheer menace). Passing himself off as an authentic American (he being the rarest of all Brits, one with good teeth, could pull it off) gave Taylor great cache in the U.K.. With his brooding good looks and a wild stage show, Taylor was a natural. The fact that he had trouble singing in time and in key was of little consequence when the competition was the likes of Wee Willie Wayne, Tommy Steele, and Johnny Gentle.
Although it would go on to be considered of a classic it didn’t exactly tear up the charts and for his third 45 Taylor was on the tiny Palette label which issued his other great achievement in wax– “Jet Black Machine” a killer uptempo hot rod tune that brings the menacing quality in his sound to the forefront. It was his last great disc, but it too failed to chart, and despite the fact that he was a good live draw, in the U.K. he was already a spent force as a recording act.
Vince Taylor played an extended engagement at the Top Ten Club where he drove audiences to seismic frenzy, toured a bit, hired and fired musicians weekly and despite the hysteria caused by his live show, within a year he was back at the 2i’s where he started, his manager Singer disappeared and Vince was already displaying the erratic behaviour that would eventually destroy his career. He was insanely jealous and if he phoned his girlfriend and she wasn’t home, he’d blow off the show, spending his night searching for her in the pubs and coffee bars of Soho. He fought with his musicians to the point that he would lose one band to Marty Wilde, and their replacement to Duffy Power (there’s a rumor that goes that Larry Parnes who packaged and managed most of the early British rock acts, gave them their stage names according to their performance in his bed– hence Billy Fury, Johnny Gentle, etc.).
It was around this time Taylor adopted what became his signature look, a black leather sweat suit, long leather gloves, and a large chain as an accessory. There’s much debate as to whether he copped his look from Gene Vincent (who’d been outfitted similarly by British producer/promoter Jack Goode for his first U.K. tour), or if Goode and Vincent got the idea from Taylor. It was a look that Elvis would copy to much acclaim on his ’68 Comeback TV special and eventually become part of every rock idiot’s wardrobe. Nobody wore it as well as Vince Taylor, and if “Brand New Cadillac” and “Jet Black Machine” hadn’t ensured his immortality, he would still be remembered as one of rock’n’roll’s most photogenic images. Still, Taylor’s popularity had peaked in England and rock’n’roll was practically out of style in the U.S., lucky for Vince his career was given a reprieve when he took his band to Paris in 1960, appearing at the bottom of a bill that featured Vince Eager, Wee Willie Wayne and Nero & the Gladiators. Taylor in full leathers, chain, black kohl eye make-up and his hair dyed black and sculpted with grease stole the show with his stylized moves and malevolent stage presence, and was immediately signed to the French Barclay label, owned by Paris’ answer to Morris Levy, Eddie Barclay who put him to work recording covers of Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Elvis and other rock’n’roll classics, issuing a ten inch LP and many EP’s (packaging was very important to the visually oriented French, and the EP picture cover became France’s greatest contribution to rock’n’roll). Barclay issued dozens of Vince Taylor records, many promoted by Scopitones, short films made especially for the video jukebox Scopitone machine that was popular only in France (the U.S. rights to it were owned by George Jessel, the comedian who produced the amazing movie Nightmare Alley with Tyrone Power), the clips seen here were made for the Scopitone machines.
In 1962 he headlined a bizarre show called Twist Appeal– L’Erotisme Au Xxe Siecle (Eroticism In The 20th Century) in which Taylor performed between displays of erotic dancers, sets and costumes by Erte, a famous ballet designer. Vince was packing them in and this was the pinnacle of his career as a French rock’n’roll icon.
Fueled by alcohol and prellies (preludin, the same brand of speed favored by the Beatles in their Star Club days) Taylor became more and more undependable. He blew off a two week booking at Hamburg’s Star Club, and seemed to travel between the U.S., the U.K. and France without rhyme or reason, eventually settling in St. Tropez with model Helene April who supported him financially for a spell.
In April, 1965 he opened for the Rolling Stones at Paris’ Olympia, this time backed by a new band– the Bobby Clarke Noise (whose bass player Stanislas “Stash” Klossowski would strike up a friendship with Keith Richards after the show, they remain best friends to this day). By all accounts Vince was still in fine form as a performer, but not for long. By May it was all over for Vince. On a trip back to the U.K. he attended a party for Bob Dylan and tried LSD for the first time, it was just what he needed to push his already loopy mind over the edge.
Vince scored some more acid and returned to Paris for a gig, he was filthy, unshaven and bug-eyed, clutching a bottle of Mateus wine. He insisted his name was Mateus, he was the new Jesus, son of God, and he appeared onstage that night wrapped in a sheet extolling the audience to follow him as he led a procession out the door of the venue and across the Seine to St Germain Des Pres preaching all the way. From here Taylor joins the likes of Syd Barrett, Skip Spence, and other acclaimed acid burn outs as one of those legends we love to speculate about. According to long suffering drummer Bobbie Woodman, from this point on all Vince did was eat eggs. There were comeback attempts in ’67, ’72, ’74 and ’75, all disastrous. He wrote his autobiography Alias Vince Taylor: Le Survivant (Editions Delville, 1976) but it was never translated into English. A French girl started reading it to me once but we lost touch before she could finish, although I do remember her proclaiming it “merde'”.
At some point (possibly in 1966) David Bowie came in contact with a very distraught Taylor and used his impressions of him as the basis for his Ziggy Stardust character. A sad claim to fame for the guy who cut “Brand New Cadillac”. Joe Strummer whose band the Clash would record a rather mediocre cover of “Brand New Cadillac” in the early 80’s tells a similar story of running into a very paranoid Taylor in a bar, ranting about the Duke of Windsor trying to kill him.
Vince Taylor still took the occasional rent money gig, cutting an awful live LP in ’77 (his second, his first was a fake audience dubbed live disc for Barclay in ’65) and was appearing at Teddy Boy festivals, rock’n’roll revivals and in tiny clubs until the early 80’s. He moved to Switzerland in 1983, married Nathalie Minster and spent six months in the bug house. He died of lung cancer in Switzerland on August 7, 1991. Did I mention he slept with Brigitte Bardot?