Don Taylor - Sax / Flute
It all started on July 15, 1959, I was 10 years old and standing in the backyard of our new house in Columbus, Ohio. My family, consisting of me,my mother, father and older sister, had just moved there from South Carolina a couple of months earlier…we were transplanted Southerners and world-travelers, having earlier that year, on this amazing trans-Atlantic cruise, returned from living in Germany for the previous three years. But we were feeling a definite culture shock. You see, basically, back then in Ohio, anyone from south of the Ohio River was considered trash, or just from Kentucky, something I knew wasn’t true and gladly proved a few times later on, out on the playground of the Courtright Elementary School.
I see this kid walking toward me from the house behind ours, to the left; it turned out to be Tommy Pyle, later known as “Artimus Pyle,” drummer for the Lynyrd Skynyrd rock & roll band, and now, with them,in The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But it was only “Tommy” then. It was his 11th birthday that day and he had just arrived on his uncle’s private plane from Jamestown, Tennessee, his hometown, and from where he and his family had just moved. Like us, theywere transplanted Southerners. We all became best of friends.
Tommy and I joined the 6th grade school band that fall (of 1959), and used to practice in my basement: sax and drums. We later added a trumpet and trombone to our basement band, our first band. Later, in May 1962, being big for my age, then 13, I was asked to join this half-white/half-black R&B band. (I knew the trumpet player who, along with the others, was older than me…but also significant is I had the exclusive use of my school’s baritone sax, increasing my value.) I naturally brought Tommy in as soon as possible, about a year later. It was during high school, a little later still, that Tommy and I formed a jazz quartet with this green-eyed and highly talented black piano player named Raymond Jones, and an upperclassman, Mike Turley, who played the string bass. We did all the sock hops and parties, playing Ramsey Lewis, Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck cover tunes, as they were popularcrossovergroups in the mid-1960’s.
After high school, I enrolled at Miami University (in Ohio), where I eventually majored in saxophone and flute, and Tommy enrolled at Tennessee Tech (in Cookeville). Unfortunately, we lost contact for awhile after that…Tommy quit school after freshman year and joined the Marine Corps, where he was re-named “Artimus.” At Miami, I started working in local bars and doing shows, etc., and continued-on from there. It was in the fall of 1969, when I met the blues/rock guitar legend Lonnie Mack…we were working at a club in Cincinnati and he was in town on a tour break. Cincinnati was his home base and Lonnie was with Elektra Records then, touring with The Doors.
For some reason Lonnie liked our band, and the next thing I know we’re off to New York City to meet with his record rep, Russell Miller, who also handled Jim Morrison, et al.(During that trip, Lonnie fronted for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at their debut concert at The Fillmore East…we were given first-class treatment, including back stage passes, etc.) It was agreed with Elektra we’d do a couple of demo tapes and talk later. In the meantime, they helped book us into some college concert venues as a front band for such groups as Jefferson Airplane, Johnny & Edgar Winter, The Bob Seger System, Spirit, Leslie West & Mountain, Santana, The James Gang, and some others.
Naturally we thought a lot of ourselves…but not much longer…Elektra didn’t sign us and it was back to “reality.” And after a year or so of playing in clubs and steakhouses, etc., I decided to go back to Miami U.and pick-up a more “useful degree” in Financial Accounting, you know, to get a “real job.” So there I am back in school once again, getting ready to get serious (had a fiancée, etc.), when I get this call from Artimus. He had been discharged from the Marines, a year or so before, and was heading back to South Carolina where he’d previously been stationed. He wanted to start a new bandthere and pickup where we had left-off. “Was I going?” he asked. Of course I wanted to, but had to decline, because you know, I was getting “serious.” And this is where the story takes a turn.
It’s now the summer of 1976 (some four years later),and I was living in Chicago’s Near Northside, working as an FBISpecial Agent. (To make a long story short, just know that because of my accounting studies at Miami U., I was recruited by the Bureau and thought the job would be interesting.) I took my wife and a friend of hers to a Cubs/Dodgers game at nearby Wrigley Field one day that summer, and when I get home there was a message from the office that an Artimus Pyle was at the Ambassador East Hotel (also close) and wanted me to call. And when I did that,I was told he and the band were in town for a concert and four-day layover…I took the subway to the hotel and was there in about fifteen minutes.
The next day was Sunday, and after meeting Artimus’ bandmateson Saturday (Leon Wilkeson,Ronnie Van Zant, Billy Powell, Allen Collins, Gary Rossington and Stevie Gaines), and afterhavingtalkedsome about me working with the band, if and when they added a horn section, we all headed together in a limo for Hawthorne Raceway (used normally for thoroughbred racing) for their show with Peter Frampton and Gary Wright, the "Dream Weaver"…the press later said there were 85,000 people in attendance that day. And they were right, because when I walked-up on stage there were people and unfurled Confederate battle flags as far back as I could see…an amazing sight. Artimus told me to stand stage left, next to Barbi Benton, Hugh Hefner’s girlfriend then, and a super-star at the time. And when the band broke-in with “Workin’ For MCA,”allhellbroke-loose, and I was doomedright then…this from seeing Tommy Pyle, my basement drummer, driving this whole amazing spectacle. So anything became possible and nothing would remain the same. I had arrived at an artistic understanding: playing music is playing music, whether at a church, a large racetrack, or anylocalcorner bar.
We all know what happened next, the tragic Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash in October 1977. After the crash, and because he was relatively unhurt compared to the others who survived (four died, including band members Ronnie Van Zant and Stevie Gaines), Artimus moved back home with his wifeand young son in northwest South Carolina, at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and formed the first Artimus Pyle Band (APB). He was waiting for his “boys,” as he called them, to heal-up from the crash, if ever, the one he miraculously walked away from with just some torn cartilage and bruised ribs. Artie was lucky that way.
And I had always been lucky, too, up to and including the time of the plane crash, October 1977…I was living, at that time, the near perfect life:I had a great job and a good-looking wife, power and prestige, and a gun and real badge. But knowing now that playing in a band and being a musician was the only thing I ever really wanted to do, and with my still youthful self-confidence extremely high (it seemed I could do no wrong back then), I decided then and there to resign from the FBI and join the band…there was no other option. I began making plans…and some, even many, thought me insane?
May1978 was whenI made my move. I began touring and performing with APB, and did so for the next eight years, mostly in the Carolinas. Luckily, I was always able to find decent day-jobs to support my family. We worked with The Marshall Tucker Band (also from South Carolina), both in the studio and on stage, and recorded two albums for MCA Records, “All Points Bulletin” and “Nightstalker.”
The summer of 1986 (those eight years later) is when I met my first Chillbillie: one very young and very talented George Massengill, our singer and piano player. Since April of that year, APB had been working in Nashville, doing showcase and concert work with such groups as The Charlie Daniels Band, Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, The Allman Brothers, and even Lonnie Mack, my mentor and original inspiration. I met George after we were booked into a show, “The Hillbilly Jam,” at The Fentress County Fairgrounds, in Jamestown, Tennessee (again, Artimus’ hometown). We were the “headliners,” with George’s local Southfork band leading-off. And as it turned-out, this show was the last APB showfor the next three years, as Artimus and I right then decided to join Southfork. We both saw George’s potential as a front man, singer and entertainer…that rare quality.
We worked with George and Southfork until around Christmas of that year, 1986. (George was more just a lead singer back then, but he has since developed into an exceptional piano and harmonica player.) But because it was obvious that nothing was working-out, Artimus decided to move to Israel and start a new life…he left at the start of the New Year, 1987. And it was time for me to go, too. Luckily I had some business/accounting contacts in Florida, so I made plans for a move to Miami. And this is where the story takes another turn.
I spent the winter & spring (of '87) living on a sailboat in Miami and working at a financial services firm in Ft. Lauderdale, and in May, was assigned an audit-job up in Ponte Vedra, that “beachy-luxury-suburb” east of Jacksonville. I had no way of knowing this, but right then plans were being made to do the Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Tour…it was to be a “one-time, nationwide tribute tour” to honor the deceased band members and crew. And of course, with Artimus in Israel and me working and residing near Jacksonville, I was designated to be his representative.
We started organizing the tour that summer in Jacksonville, with rehearsals and production work. And later, in September, right before the dress rehearsal in Oakland, California, Ed King, guitarist and co-writer of Sweet Home Alabama, asked if I could play sax on some of the songs (“Call Me The Breeze,” “Little Girl,” and “Swamp Music”). I didn’t have to think much about that, I went from a manager-type to a musician in less than a second. And even though I had to wait 10 years (1977 to 1987) to play with the band, it was well worth the wait…a dream fulfilled: Me and Ronnie Eades, the original“Sax Attack”horn section for the band known as Lynyrd Skynyrd.
It was later, in 1992 when I met my next Chillbillie, Teddy Phillips, our drummer. George and I had been working together, whenever possible, since 1988, after Skynyrd dropped the horn section. (One of our best collaborations, ever, was in 1989, when we joined the Second Chance gospel band together, along with present Chillbillies' lead-guitarist, Lewell Molen.) Teddy kept coming-up with all these great bookings, private parties and sports bars…the early Chillbillies. By using a rotation of different musicians, George, Teddy and I worked solid together until 1995, when I quit and moved to Nashville. But one day in 1999, when I was in a Nashville COMP/USA, I ran into George Massengill. What’s the chance of that? But as they say, “The rest is history.” Within a week I was working with George, Larry Patton (the “best of the best”) and Victor Hill (“The Rocket,” who’s always ready to blast-off!) over in Cookeville. Next, it was on to Knoxville, where I soon met Tim Irwin, a natural singer and ourbandleader, and was re-united with Teddy. And so now, now that we’ve been working together, steady, for the last 15 years or more, I can honestly say without a doubt, that the Chillbillies is the best band I was ever in, and another dream fulfilled.
January 27th, 2015