The grim hearsay surrounding Sam Taylor took to the air sometime last year, swirling its way like a tiny, gossip-fueled twister around the city. The rumor mill came to a head last fall when an anonymous caller telephoned the Press to report that, among other things, Taylor, once the management brains and one-man artistic support team behind the nationally recognized Houston acts King's X and Galactic Cowboys, was on his deathbed with an inoperable brain tumor. Others doubted the story, but no one seemed to know for sure one way or the other -- and for a while, the subject of these suppositions was doing nothing to clear them up.
Until recently, Taylor was a man with two area codes, a pager and a home that alternated between here and Dallas. Before that, after pulling up stakes at his Houston-based Wilde Silas MusicWorks and quietly dropping out of sight, he'd spent time laying low at his former residence in Katy. It was during this time -- as Taylor tried to sell his house and finalize his divorce -- that the theories about his health and whereabouts multiplied.
Many around town were prepared to write Taylor off as another music industry casualty. This March, however, the mystery man finally surfaced to argue that point, opening an unexpected phone conversation simply and cheerfully with, "Hey, man, this is Sam Taylor. I'm still alive."
It may come as a surprise to some, but Taylor claims to be healthier and more full of life than ever. Sitting down to lunch a few weeks into April at a noisy Houston restaurant, Taylor looks a bit worn, but far from beaten. The pronounced lines around his eyes give away his worrisome nature, while his weathered features and thinning hair make him appear somewhat older than his 43 years. The once elusive Taylor talks a lot more freely these days. Even in a crowded eatery, he's more than willing to open up about his life.
"I didn't like baby-sitting bands. I didn't like somebody's wife calling me at 11 o'clock at night saying, 'They just cut my electricity off; I need $250,' " he laments. "But I was always the sucker who would not only write the check, but drive it over there."
Taylor was never much for parenting, but he tried his best anyway, shouldering the worries of his dependents and taking on enough responsibility for ten men. None of the dependents in question were Taylor's own flesh and blood, but they might as well have been. In his line of work, Taylor always had plenty of unruly youngsters to keep him busy. So it shouldn't come as a shock that through the 17 years of his now-ended marriage, the musical jack-of-all-trades held off having any kids -- or any sort of a life -- of his own. In the end, that almost destroyed him.
A native of Waxahachie, Sam Taylor grew up in a household saturated in music of all kinds.
"I used to think it was very strange to go over to a friend's house and not see a piano," he remembers. "Every Sunday night, we'd gather around a piano and sing. My father gave my mother a steel guitar as a wedding present; my older brother was in a rock and roll band because he loved Buddy Holly. He dragged me to see the Beatles when I was 12. That's just the way I was raised."
After college and a rough tenure as a songwriter and studio musician in Nashville, Taylor was brought to Houston by Bill Ham, who hired him to help run the ZZ Top empire. The career change couldn't have come at a better time. Top was just beginning to undergo their multiplatinum metamorphosis from down-home blues-rock bumpkins to video savvy superstars.
"In 1982, MTV was in its infancy, and I sort of prodded the organization to do music videos," says Taylor, who adds that he was in charge of everything from marketing to legal affairs at Ham's enterprise. "I also ended up being the video coordinator for the Eliminator album."
With the help of the cool car, the girls and a streamlined sound, Eliminator went on to sell millions, and for a while, Taylor thought he had found his calling. But by 1985, he'd become bored with the business side of his job and left the Top fold to search for his own pool of talent. At first, he tried it completely on his own, taking his life savings and sinking it into a pair of no-name songwriters from Dallas. That project floundered, and Taylor turned to record label consulting. Eventually, the consulting led him to King's X, a Houston group that came to be known as much for its strong religious ties as for its harmony rich, metallic-Beatles sound.
Taylor tries to be forthright about his own spirituality, as well as his affiliations with bands whose Christianity is a primary rallying -- if not necessarily selling -- point. But getting a handle on just where his faith falls in the religious continuum is another issue altogether. Taylor's open-ended approach to worship, it seems, is all his own.
"I believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah," says Taylor. "But I also think the biggest thing wrong with Christianity is Christians, and I probably fit into that category and can point the finger back at myself."
To some extent, Taylor is also willing to point the finger back at himself when it comes to his relationship with King's X. In 1986, after seeing the group rehearse, Taylor quickly took the power trio under his wing, climbing aboard as their manager, creative collaborator, producer, video coordinator and in-studio instrumental handyman.
"If I did anything, I gave King's X a license to be true to themselves," says Taylor. "Not only did they create a new sound, but they found a new starting point -- and this band had already been together five years when that happened."
Partly by coincidence and partly through persistence, Taylor landed King's X a user-friendly deal with Megaforce/Atlantic. The honeymoon lasted through four releases, which were met with strong critical acclaim, if unspectacular sales. About the time of 1990's Faith Hope Love and the semi-successful video for the striking single "It's Love," the members of King's X began questioning Taylor's role in the band. In 1992, Taylor and the group unceremoniously parted ways.
"It was a culmination of things, really. I was building the company [Wilde Silas MusicWorks] at the time, I had two other bands -- Galactic Cowboys and the beginnings of Atomic Opera -- and 20 people on the payroll," explains Taylor, who admits that, near the end, he wasn't giving King's X the attention they deserved. "I brought some people in to help out who didn't have the same kind of talent for cheerleading and counseling. King's X needed preferential treatment; they were the top dogs."
Taylor let King's X go without a struggle, which left him free to concentrate on the Galactic Cowboys. His situation with the Cowboys was slightly less hands-on than with King's X, due to his overwhelming business commitments, a troubled marriage and his failing health.
"Problems in my personal life were taking their toll," says Taylor. "I had financial obligations; I was very, very unhappy. At one point, my bad cholesterol was over 400. I went to my doctor for a checkup, and he told me I had severe problems."
Taylor has also experienced strange headaches over the last few decades. Extensive testing has failed to reveal their cause; hence, the brain tumor scare. "There was a fear somewhere along the line that it might be something more than headaches," Taylor says. "And I think some people put two and two together and thought that maybe I had a heart condition, a tumor, cancer or something like that."
None of Taylor's problems kept him away from his work, though. The Galactic Cowboys signed with Geffen/DGC, releasing an eclectic pair of spiritually focused, harmony-intensive releases in 1991 and 1993, both produced by Taylor. "The Cowboys got this huge deal with Geffen," says Taylor. "They would have had to become Nirvana to keep it."
As luck would have it, the Cowboys were announced to the world about the same time as Nirvana, also a DGC act; it's not hard to figure out which band came out on the bottom. Understandably frustrated with their predicament, the Cowboys split with Taylor.
"At the end of the day, you have to realize that this is their career, not yours," he reflects. "I refused to believe that's the way it was, and for ten years, I tried to change the system."
His personal and professional life in tatters, Taylor soon realized that it was time to stop beating his head against the wall over things that he couldn't control and start working on changing himself.
"I started going to some counseling to find out what motivated me," he says. "I really believed at the time that I really didn't want anything from these [bands]; I just wanted to do a good job for them. But my counselor made me realize that, hey, I was always taking a back seat; I never took credit for what I did; I was always behind the scenes."
Eventually, Taylor says, it dawned on him that his whole life revolved around the approval of others. "It was like family accepting you -- if they think you're cool, then you're okay," he says. "I realized that the very nature of an artist is to be self-centered. You can't really expect someone -- after being told how great they are -- to tell you that it doesn't affect them, or turn around and be caring individuals."
Often, though, Taylor's own aloof, self-absorbed behavior didn't help matters any. "He was always this mysterious father-type figure -- almost an unapproachable guy," says Dane Sonnier, former guitarist with the Galactic Cowboys. (Losing their with deal with Geffen after 1993's Space in Your Face, the Cowboys broke up, only to reunite months later without Sonnier.)
Taylor says he's well aware of the work required to iron out the kinks in his life. But from the sound of things, he's come a long way. At least, many around him think so -- even Sonnier. He recently reconciled with Taylor, who has produced a demo for the Sonnier Brothers Band (led by Dane and his bassist brother Len, formerly of the Taylor pet project Atomic Opera) and is shopping it to major labels.
"It's completely the opposite [of what it was]," says Sonnier. "I consider him a friend. If we have a problem, we can sit down and hash it out instead of carrying it around and letting it grow into something bigger than it really is. I think our relationship has come full circle."
Now that he's back in town, presumably for good, Taylor says he wouldn't mind fixing a few more busted friendships and laying the foundations for new ones. Possibly, he could even make a fresh mark on a Houston music scene crying out for some direction.
"I find myself very comfortable in defending this city," says Taylor. "People say you have to move to Austin or Los Angeles to be successful, but I'm here to say that it can be done in Houston. It's ripe and ready. Okay, so there's not a scene like Seattle or Deep Ellum. But I couldn't care less about that."
Taylor is the first to confess that he's made many adversaries over the years, and that he's burned some bridges beyond repair. He'll also tell you that Texas is where he belongs -- it's where he was raised, and it's where he feels the most comfortable. Taylor made this fact known rather eloquently a few years back to an old enemy who'd been bashing his reputation from afar in New York.
"Somebody recommended that I sue the guy, but I'm a Texan, so I wanted do things my way. I picked up the phone and called him," recalls Taylor. "I simply said, 'You don't know what kind of Texan I am. I may be the kind of Texan who'd kick your ass for what you've done. But you'd have to get on an airplane and come down here to find out.'
"And I hung up the phone."
Living out a long-latent personal fantasy with his new improvisational jazz/rock/ whatzit trio, Moons of Jupiter, may have something to do with Taylor's recent personal rejuvenation. In the past, he always shied away from the spotlight -- as far as he was concerned, too much emphasis on him took the attention away from his bands. That desire to work quietly behind the scenes kept Taylor, a talented guitarist and keyboard player, off the stage for decades. Call it a fear of public scrutiny or just plain modesty, but whatever you call it, for Taylor, suppressing that urge to perform was downright unhealthy.
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"I had this musician in me," he says, "and it was withering away and getting sick."
Fronting a recent Moons of Jupiter show at Ovations, Taylor moved smoothly from guitar to piano to organ as classically trained cellist Max Dyer and much-in-demand percussionist Ray Dillard presented a dizzying variety of musical challenges. Taylor met them all with a wide grin and surprising ease for a man unaccustomed to the stage.
"Sam was always on the outside; I really encouraged him to be selfish and do what he wanted to do," says Dyer, who spent three years with the Houston Symphony and is now a cellist with the Houston Ballet Orchestra and Houston Grand Opera. "I could tell he was a frustrated performer who was sort of living a vicarious life through his bands."
Taylor won't argue with that assessment.
"I've been playing since I was three," he says. "It's always been the most natural thing I've ever done.