1”>“My favorite CD right now is Lewis Taylor ... My stylist had a mix-tape with his song ‘Bittersweet’ and I had to know who was singing.”
51; Aaliyah, 2001
For much of the last decade, arguably the most brilliant R&B artist of this generation has toiled in relative obscurity in Britain. It’s not that Lewis Taylor is unknown—Elton John, David Bowie, D’Angelo, Chaka Khan, Darryl Hall (of Hall & Oates) and the late Aaliyah—are among his fervent admirers. The British music press has also heaped a great amount of praise on Taylor, anointing him the “new British blue-eyed soulster”. Meanwhile the star-making machine(s) in the United States—which manufactured hand-to-mouth desire for a mediocre black British talent like Craig David—has been seemingly oblivious to Lewis Taylor. It was really only on the fringes of the Neo-Soul nation that one could utter Lewis Taylor’s name and even then, given the difficulty of tracking down Taylor’s music in the States, it was often as a by-product of an on-going mythology surrounding Michael “D’Angelo” Archer (quickly becoming the Sly Stone of the hip-hop era). With the release of Stoned (HackTone Records)—the first recording by Lewis Taylor released domestically in the United States—the North London native should finally attract the audience that his music deserves.
| The Best of Lewis Taylor
Check out an array of Lewis Taylor studio and live tracks at LewisTaylorMusic.com.
Lewis Taylor, Lewis Taylor (Island, 1996)
Dense, dark, murky. One really has to have patience to wait for Taylor’s vocals to pierce through the elaborative soundscape that he has constructed—more than a minute through Taylor’s seeming tribute to Pet Sounds on “Betterlove”—but oh, when those vocals do breakthrough it’s like a second-slice of sunrise. You can hear resonances of Taylor’s “Bittersweet” and “Lucky” in Timbaland’s work from the late 1990s (check the Romeo Must Die soundtrack). The sweetest taste on Lewis Taylor is the simplest in form: Taylor cooing over his own backing vocals on “Spirit”, conjuring memories of Marvin’s “Just to Keep You Satisfied”. [Amazon]
Lewis Taylor, Lewis II (Island, 2000)
Without putting too fine a point on it—Lewis Taylor and Lewis II are as different as night and day. Less ambitious than Taylor’s debut, Lewis II really should have been a breakthrough for Taylor. Tracks like “Never Be My Woman”, “I’m On the Floor”, and the title track anticipates the favor that some audiences would find in Mr. Timberlake’s collaboration with Timbaland on “Cry Me a River” and further delves into the esoteric funk of Maxwell’s Embrya. Again Taylor is at his most brilliant under the blue-lights with tracks like “Satisfied”, “Blue Eyes”, and his somewhat mechanical remake of Jeff Buckley’s sweetish “Everybody Here Wants You”. [Amazon]
Lewis Taylor, Stoned, Part One (Slow Reality, 2003) / Stoned (HackTone, 2005)
Stoned is really the middle ground between Taylor’s two Island releases and in some ways distills the best of his musical sensibilities. The title track takes Taylor back to his prog-rock days with the Edgar Broughton Band in the mid-1980s, though the vocals are as soulful as ever. The vocals on “Positively Beautiful” are straight from Marvin Gaye’s work from 1973-1977—“Got to Give it Up” in particular. The moodiness of “Lewis IV” and “Sheneverdid” recalls the debut recording, but this time around Taylor’s atmospherics are given clarity. Finally there’s the suite of “Shame”, “When Will I Ever Learn”, and “Back Together Again” which would have made Stoned a worthwhile listen on their own merits. [Amazon]
Why isn’t Lewis Taylor more well-known in the United States? Well, we could start with the shortsightedness of Island Records, the label that initially signed Taylor as a solo artist in 1994. Or we could discuss the corporate gatekeepers in urban radio who seem to revel in the possibility that contemporary R&B will remain one of the most uncomplicated (and un-creative) outposts in the music industry. And then there’s the issue of Taylor’s whiteness—a boost for pretty R&B-boys like Justin Timberlake or Jon B a decade ago, less so for the 30-something “neurotic” that Taylor was when his debut Lewis Taylor was released in 1996.
“When I first got the attention from Island Records,” Lewis Taylor explains, “it was because I have one song in which I phrase a little bit like Al Green, and the record company said ‘we found the new Al Green’ and they hadn’t even met me yet.” This was back in 1994 when Taylor was shopping what he describes as an “awful” demo. But it isn’t just Al Green that you hear on that first solo recording; you hear strains of Bobby Womack, Marvin Gaye, and a litany of ‘70s Soul men. As the story goes, Leon Ware, who wrote and produced much of Gaye’s I Want You (1976) and a significant artist in his own right (check out Musical Massage), broke down in tears after hearing tracks from Lewis Taylor. To the more discerning listener there are also resonances of Tangerine Dream, Radiohead, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew (1969), and most queerly the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds(1966)—music that could charitably be called atmospheric. In other words Lewis Taylor pushed the boundaries of what we comfortably thought of as R&B—R&B for folk as literate in the Mary J. Bliges and R. Kellys of the world as it is in Luther Ingram and Tim Buckley.
Thirty years ago Taylor’s brew would have made him the darling of “progressive” FM-radio—a programming maverick like the late Frankie Crocker (a longtime fixture at New York’s WBLS (WLIB-FM) would have drooled at the opportunity to have Taylor’s music included in what he called the “Total Experience in Sound”. Taylor unfortunately made no in-roads onto the US radio scene, which made it virtually impossible to get a hearing in the States. Given the real creative labor that artists like Meshell Ndegeocello, Mint Condition, Erykah Badu, the Family Stand, and most fabulously D’Angelo were undertaking in the early-to-mid-1990s, Lewis Taylor should have been an unqualified commercial and critical success in the United States. Unfortunately Island Records never really “got” what Taylor was trying to do.
“It was very difficult at the time” Taylor recalls, Island “really struggled to understand it.” It’s not that Island didn’t recognize the value of a “skinny little [white] lad who can sing like a Soul singer” but they didn’t know how to market Taylor’s music. As Taylor describes his eponymous debut, “The songs on [Lewis Taylor] are all textures and moods and feelings—the songs are very loose, but it’s very difficult to tell because they’re so densely and heavily arranged.” According to Taylor, “My singing voice is so much different from my voice as a musician, and I was trying to get it all in there at the same time.” What seems like a joyous concoction for hard-core fans of R&B and Soul was a marketing nightmare for a record company “just on the verge of becoming the company that they are now”. Taylor recalls one exec at Island who kept asking, “When’s he gonna come out with his ‘Money is Too Tight to Mention?’” in reference to the 1985 recording that introduced the so-called “blue-eyed” Soul of Mick Hucknall and Simply Red to American audiences with the album Picture Book. Simply Red’s chart-topping cross-over “cover” of Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” (1988) was indeed the blueprint that Island hoped to follow with Taylor, had the singer been willing.
Part of what Taylor resisted was the whole packaging of the “blue-eyed” Soul singer: “[It] really bothered me at the time, so much so that in response to the first album, I stopped promoting it after a year, and went home ... and recorded a completely different album, that was the most un-R&B album you could probably ever hear.” According to Taylor he made a recording that married Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors and the Beach Boys, that “eschewed any of the black influences”. In response to the British press calling him the “new British blue-eyed soulster” Taylor famously told Blues and Soul magazine back in 1997, “Well I suppose the most unintelligent answer I could give to that is ‘fuck off’.” Taylor is a little bit more contrite eight years after his outburst: “I felt like I painted myself into a little bit of a box and it did sit very uneasily with me.”
Island rejected Taylor’s second release (The album was later released on Taylor’s own label as The Lost Album) and he finally went back to the studio to record Lewis II, which was released in 2000. While
Lewis Taylor—the follow-up plays more like a dance album—the reality was that it was still a far-cry from anything like Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite(1996). In search of a lead single that could earn Taylor a hit, Island had him record remakes of tracks like “Until You Come Back to Me” (aping Aretha’s version), Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “Reflections”, and Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland”. Eventually it was Taylor’s rendition of the late Jeff Buckley’s beautiful “Everybody Here Wants You” that was included on the album, though Taylor still struggled to find an audience in Britain or the United States
The best chance that Taylor had to breakthrough to American audiences, particularly the Neo-Soul nation, was a possible collaboration with D’Angelo on what would eventually become the much delayed Voodoo (2000). Many Neo-Soul audiences first heard of Taylor via D’Angelo’s claims that he was a fan of Taylor’s. As Taylor explains his relationship with the equally enigmatic D’Angelo, “Around ‘98, I got a call from one of his manager guys ... they just had a bunch of ideas, they weren’t really sure what it is they wanted. I think their idea was to get me over [to the states] and figure it out while I was over there.” What Taylor really suspects is that “they were having a little bit of difficulty keeping [D’Angelo] focused ... He’s getting invited to all these crazy parties and they are trying to keep him in the studio” hoping that “ would be a calming influence on him.” To make a very long story short, Taylor spent four days in a New York City hotel with no contact with anyone from D’Angelo camp. “I just got very fed-up with it, I threw a hissy-fit and I left, without even telling them,” Taylor recalls. “The two of us have still to this day, never met.” A similar story occurred when Chaka Khan reached out to Taylor to do some things together. These experiences, along with Taylor’s on-going struggles with Island records (who dropped him after Lewis II) further enhanced his disillusionment with the recording industry.
Without a label deal Taylor sulked back to his home studio, where he began to record Stoned, Part One, which was released in early 2003 on his own label Slow Reality. Subsequent releases on Slow Reality included Stoned, Part II (upbeat remixes to many of the tracks found on the original), the aforementioned Lost Album (2004) and Limited Edition(2004) As Taylor wrote in Music Week back in 2002, “the reality is that [the music] doesn’t need that much. The people who hear it like it—it’s as simple as that.” Despite the brilliance of Taylor’s earlier recordings, there’s little doubt that Stoned represents him as his most accessible. The recording was a logical choice for the folk at HackTone who wanted to introduce Taylor to a larger American audience, by repackaging the original recording with additional tracks like the never-before-released Stylistics’ cover “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)” and “Back Together”, which also appears on Limited Edition. Accordingly Taylor has mixed emotions about some of the hype that Stoned has now generated in the States: “I’ve been so used to everything being the way that it has been. And for me, we’re talking about a record that was released awhile ago and I’ve moved on a little bit.”
Now, working primarily with his life partner Sabina Smyth, Taylor’s suggest that their collaborations have “opened up the music for me and opened up my approach to making music and even listening to music. I think progressively each release we put out on our own label has been more a lot more open.” He adds, “But by the time we started putting our own records, gradually it’s been less and less about being completely focused on the idea of being an artist and succeeding and a lot of those things that are really vitally important to artists.” Over and over again, Taylor says “life gets in the way” to explain his retreat from the mainstream recording industry—the career is “not so important anymore”. With a starred review in Rolling Stone and a recent appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien it looks like Taylor’s career is what will be getting in the way, and for American audiences of quality Soul and R&B, that’s a blessing.