It’s a certain indescribable element; a spark one feels that cannot be explained away by the black leather attire that became synonymous with his name or the magazine cover-worthy grin he flashed while belting out a version of Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock.” It’s a magic found in each appearance on a British television show, in every chord plucked out by his backing band, The Playboys, and in the undercurrent of excitement that seemed to permeate his audiences; an intuition that they were in the presence of someone—something—truly extraordinary.
Yes, there’s something magical about Vince Taylor—and it lies in his legacy of one iconic song, a larger-than-life glam rock character and in the almost Shakespearean tragedy that his life became.
Or does it?
Brian Holden wanted to be a star. Heck, what teenager attending high school in Hollywood, the celluloid capital of the country, didn’t? But Holden held no aspirations of becoming the next Marlon Brando or James Dean. He had fallen in love with a fiery genus of music steeped in controversy; a raw, uninhibited sound created by the likes of Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent. Thus, in 1958, Holden returned to his native England in hopes of boosting his fledgling career as a rock ‘n’ roller. London had much to offer musically, and Holden absorbed it all, befriending musicians and honing his talent at a Soho coffee bar reputed to be a proving ground for area rockabilly performers.
While some sources claim that the budding singer made the trip to England at the invitation of his sister Sheila’s husband, Joe Barbera—whose collaboration with William Hanna would yield an abundance of classic cartoon characters, including the Flintstones and Scooby-Doo—this particular instance seems to be little more than a case of legend becoming fact. Although evidence suggests that Barbera did, indeed, wed Holden’s sibling, the animation guru was married to someone else when Holden migrated to the United Kingdom; the union between Barbera and Sheila Holden wouldn’t occur until years later, during the 1960s.
It wasn’t long before Parlophone Records took an interest, albeit briefly, in the newly christened Vince Taylor—the moniker was reportedly obtained from combining the surname of actor Robert Taylor with print found on a package of Pall Mall cigarettes—and offered him a contract. Supported by the recently formed Playboys, Taylor released “I Like Love”, backed with “Right Behind You Baby.” Despite its radio friendly sound, the single went nowhere…as did its follow-up, “Pledging My Love.” It would be that tune’s flip side, “Brand New Cadillac,” that would earn Taylor a place within the patchwork of rockabilly history.
I don’t recall when I first heard “Brand New Cadillac.” The planet didn’t cease turning; my stereo wasn’t bathed in a beam of sunlight and a chorus of rock ‘n’ roll angels didn’t burst into tune…unless you count Taylor himself. What I do remember is that I have always loved the song. From its almost sinister opening notes to its frenzied guitar solo—performed by Joe Moretti, the man responsible for the searing string work on Johnny Kidd & the Pirates’ oft-covered “Shakin’ All Over”—“Brand New Cadillac” is something special, a slice of rockabilly music heaven on earth. Composed by Taylor, the song’s simplistic, yet catchy, lyrics and driving beat have helped it to endure amongst rockabilly’s ardent listeners. Years later, “Brand New Cadillac” would be covered time and again by an assortment of acts, from punk rockers The Clash to the Brian Setzer Orchestra.
Despite an apparent lack of hit singles, record label changes and The Playboys’ constantly shifting line-up—two of the band’s members would go on to become part of the popular British group, The Shadows—Taylor’s dream of music success appeared within easy reach. However, his star, which had yet to complete its ascension, had already begun to dim. His behavior became erratic. Bookings were missed; tensions between Taylor and The Playboys arose. Regardless of the troubling signs, Taylor remained a phenomenal performer, exuding sexuality as he shimmied across the sets of assorted English TV programs. His camera ready good looks and thrusting hips seemed more outrageous, more dangerous, than those of Presley. As I viewed one Taylor performance after another on YouTube, I marveled at the sway the singer seemed to hold over his audience…including myself. He was mesmerizing. Maybe it was his dark tousled hair or disarming smile; maybe it was the earnestness with which he sang, or—holy smokes, he just dived onto a grand piano and started dancing on top of it. With that one frantic gesture, a portion of the mystery behind the Vince Taylor charm was revealed.
Less than a decade later, his behavior allegedly altered from drug abuse and, possibly, something else, Taylor was spreading a map across the ground and pointing out UFO landing sites to a musician named David Bowie. Bowie has since credited Taylor with being the inspiration behind his career-making Ziggy Stardust persona.
In 1961, Taylor, who had been terminated by the latest incarnation of The Playboys due to his continued oddball actions, rejoined his old bandmates for a gig at Paris’ Olympia Theatre. The performance was the jolt that Taylor’s faltering career needed and, although he would soon part ways with The Playboys yet again, he scored another record deal, this time, with Barclay Records. He released a series of EPs, as well as a full-length album, and, in 1964, opened for the Rolling Stones in Paris. Taylor’s sudden rise was matched with an equally rapid fall when, at a U.K. performance sometime later, he declared himself to be the reincarnation of a Biblical figure.
Taylor continued to record and perform sporadically, yet his persistent drug use and reported affinity for alcohol appeared to have taken their toll on his once heart-stopping voice. Taylor’s appearance had changed, too, yet somewhere within his gaunt frame lurked a hint of the old magnetism. It’s that mystical, enigmatic something that made Taylor a reverential figure in France, and the same factor that causes one to shake their head and mutter a disbelieving “tsk, tsk.”
I began composing this story with a singular thought in mind: Vince Taylor had wasted his talent. The singer had, apparently, allowed his vices to overtake him, and that was a tragedy. Yet, how can a man best remembered for the early accomplishments of another rocker and one highly influential song—a tune that never fails to bring a smile to my face or cause my foot to tap—be considered underperforming?
Vince Taylor succumbed to cancer in 1991. He was only 52 years old, and that’s where the real tragedy lies. Taylor, who had earned his pilot’s license as a teenager, had spent his final years in Switzerland working as an airplane mechanic. He had allegedly stated that they were the happiest, most peaceful years he had known.
Maybe—just maybe—Vince Taylor’s purpose doesn’t reside within the “what ifs” of his life. Maybe it can be found inside of the “what was.” Sometimes, traveling the path least taken leads to another, even better, road. Perhaps that’s the true lesson that his existence can offer.
There’s something magical about Vince Taylor….
Published: October 1, 2012