Who Is Chip Taylor?

Chip Taylor was an answer on Jeopardy the other day. The question--for 500 points, Alex--was this: Who penned the Troggs' hit record, "Wild Thing," in the '60s? The question also could have been: Who penned Juice Newton's hit record, "Angel of the Morning," in the '70s? Or perhaps: What successful singer-songwriter is the brother of actor Jon Voight? Or even: What successful singer-songwriter left the music business for a career as a professional gambler, only to return two decades later in one of the oddest, and loveliest, duos in roots music today?

The answer, of course: Who is Chip Taylor?

At 63 years old, Taylor is a man of uncommon accomplishment. "I was always excellent at knowing my own limitations," he says. Or, as he sings in "Laredo," "Ain't got no vibrato, baby/What I got is some common sense." So in 2001, when he saw then-23-year-old Carrie Rodriguez smoking up her fiddle at SXSW, he knew she could add something to his polished, if somewhat staid, musical ventures: youth, beauty, a certain wide-eyed pluck. As it turns out, she brought much more. With Taylor's encouragement, Rodriguez began to sing for the first time. "I always wanted to be the best fiddle player I could be," says Rodriguez, who grew up in Austin and attended Boston's Berklee School of Music, "but I never thought about using my voice. I didn't think it was there." Oh, but it is. Hers is a darling, almost-girlish twang that locks into step with Taylor's no-frills, weather-beaten baritone. "I just love the way her voice sounds against mine," Taylor says.

The duo's first album, Let's Leave This Town, was an out-of-left-field hit. Their follow-up, The Trouble With Humans, finds them in even finer form--warmer and more relaxed, cutting loose on foot-stompers like "All the Rain" or the album's hidden track, which contains the unforgettable line: "I ain't breakin a sweat/I'm gonna find me a killer, take out a contract and shoot out the TV set."

We spoke with Taylor from his home in Manhattan. He is plainspoken and humble, which makes it easy to forget, as his partner Rodriguez says, "This is somebody who's a legend in his own time."

"Wild Thing" must be one of the most covered songs in rock 'n' roll history. What's your favorite version?

I love the original Troggs record. Back in those days, the labels would sometimes hire an arranger, and you were always worried they'd lose the rock 'n' roll feel. But this sounded just like the demo. Jimi Hendrix slowed it down, but his guitar strum was the same as mine. The X version is a wonderful cover. I saw a version on television last week that absolutely slayed me. Aerosmith sang an excerpt on a commercial for the wild card football games. It was unbelievable.

Where's the weirdest place you've heard the song?

I was invited to a private screening of the Monterey Pop Festival documentary [Monterey Pop, 1968] where Jimi Hendrix played, doing all those sexual things with the guitar, and that was pretty out-there. I was kind of slinking down in the cushions of the chair. I loved it, but it was so sexual. For a kid who went to Archbishop Stepinac High School, it brought out my defense mechanisms.

What did you think of the Shaggy version of "Angel of the Morning?"

I loved it. He and his producer loved the song. The thing I admired was that they were so honorable about it. They didn't try to say, "Oh, it's not 'Angel of the Morning,'" like some people might.

There's an old Saturday Night Live in which Sting is stuck in an elevator with a guy singing his songs back to him. It's kind of his version of hell. Would that be hell to you?

[Laughs] It would depend on who I was stuck in the elevator with. The thing people do a lot is tell me how important "Wild Thing" was in their lives. I hear a lot of those stories all the time, and I certainly understand it. But I've heard similar kinds of stories for many, many years, and it always surprises me that it was so important.

When did you start gambling?

I played poker when I was a kid. I became a real professional in my early 20s. I worked very hard to know the finer points of horse-race handicapping, and I learned to count cards somewhere in my 20s.

What makes someone good at betting on horses? Is it intuition?

Not necessarily. I had a partner who's the biggest moneymaker of all time. He is a totally logical guy. Doesn't let the other side of his brain work. Mine is more an artistic handicap. I might lay down at night and think about the next day's races. Just imagine what's going to happen when the bell rings. How the horses are going to break and which jockey's going to be on which horse and how the racetrack played the day before, meaning which would be the favorable spot on the track. I could put the horses in different places and all of a sudden something would click. I would think, that horse is going to be in the right place at the quarter-mile. But it was always based on hard, cold facts, which I worked hard to learn.

Why did you give it up?

My mom got ill in the mid-'90s. One day, I got my guitar, went to see Mom and started playing a couple songs. I had the most wonderful damn day I'd had in years. After two weeks of that, I had this renewed spirit for music.

You're a New Yorker, but you write an awful lot of songs about Texas. What makes this state such a good subject for songwriting? When I was a kid, my whole thing was country music and cowboy movies. They weren't the kind of things you could get in New York, so you had to search it out. It was wonderful to do that, because you felt like you were discovering something, like finding a good horse to bet on. The first album I made was called Last Chance, and I toured in Austin. When I got to town, every station was playing my record. That was pretty good for a young guy with his first record, so I've always felt fairly close to that part of the world.

You and Carrie Rodriguez wrote three songs together for The Trouble With Humans. What is it like writing with someone else, someone who's never written songs before?

I encourage her to bring in little feelings of songs, little chord progressions, little grooves. So we get together, and she lets me make a fool of myself doing my stream-of-consciousness thing, which is how I write, and it's worked so far. Sometimes it's hard because if somebody's next to you, you don't feel comfortable. You don't want to look stupid, but that's what you have to do with these things. But it's working. She's a star now. She's being voted one of the top female folksingers in the world. There's no question that she's arrived.

It's not tough to give up the spotlight now that you finally have it?

I love sharing it with Carrie. She encourages me to sing some of my other songs, but our duet stuff is front and center. The wonderful part about this whole damn thing is the tomorrow of it all. Here I am, this guy who's been around the business a long time, but for me, I'm just going to school. I'm just learning every day. It's a wonderful education for me.