|The Last Post||Intro Contents|
Cult-favorite scat singerby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2004 Todd S. Jenkins
William H. "Shooby" Taylor, whose utterly unique form of scat singing brought him a small but devoted cult following across America, died at the Newark Extended Care Facility in Newark, N.J., on June 4, 2003. He was 74 years old.
Taylor was born in Allegheny County, PA, but came to Harlem with his family at the age of 18 months. He battled a severe stuttering problem in his youth, finally dropping out of high school in frustration. That condition may have led him to appreciate the impromptu scatting of singers like Babs Gonzales, whom Taylor idolized. He married his wife Peaches (Sadie) while they were still teenagers; their son, William H. Taylor, Jr., was born the following year.
Taylor joined the U.S. Army in 1953 and was training in Georgia when the Korean War came to an end. In 1955, after his discharge, he began working for the postal service. All along the way he continued his love affair with jazz: Duke, Dizzy, Miles, Babs and so forth. After some futile attempts to learn to play the saxophone, Taylor decided to become a scat singer instead. He claimed to have received Dizzy Gillespie's blessing to assume his enduring nickname; thus was born Shooby Taylor, the Human Horn.
Taylor's scatting style was unique to say the least, peppered with syllables that seemed nonsensical even in the scat mode: "poppy-poppy, toppy-toppy, splaw tweedle-dee raw-shaw". In the 1960s he booked studio time now and then around New York and cut several tunes that were unrivaled in their strangeness, among them "Stout Hearted Men" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing". On many tracks he was backed only by a Farfisa electric organ; the resultant music was subversively humorous, sounding not unlike a church service of the insane.
Shooby's professional career never amounted to much. In his time off from the post office he tried and failed to book gigs all over the city, even at the Apollo where he was booed off the stage. During a long period of drinking and carousing, and the collapse of his marriage, Taylor developed a new strategy. He began scatting over existing records by artists ranging from Elvis and Christy Lane to the Ink Spots and Mozart's "Rondeau Allegretto". Eventually Taylor became a Christian and gave up drinking and "whoremongering", as he put it. His last public performance was at a bar in 1993.
Shooby Taylor would have remained a forgotten footnote in American music were it not for Newark's WFMU-FM, a radio station specializing in the strangest of the strange. The station management got their hands on some of Taylor's recordings and, with the singer's permission, cobbled together a cassette which was sold as a fundraising premium. Shooby Taylor, the Human Horn became one of WFMU's most popular offerings and helped to spread the gospel of Shoobology around the country. David Letterman's producers invited Taylor to appear on television in 1995, but the singer was recovering from a stroke and unable to make the show.
Taylor retired from the post office after 21 years of service and settled into quiet obscurity. In 2002 record producer Rick Goetz, fascinated with the WFMU tape and its underlying history, tracked Taylor down to his rest home and interviewed him for the first time in years. Goetz established a website, Shooby.com, to honor the recondite scatman.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.