From “Sister Kate” to “Why Wait?” Spotlight on Singer/Songwriter Kate Taylor
By Spotlight Central. Photos by Mona Bagatelle Shenker
Singer/songwriter Kate Taylor is a member of what Rolling Stone magazine once called the “First Family of Rock” — the set of musical siblings which includes Alex, James, Livingston, Hugh, and Kate Taylor. In 1971, Kate released her well-received debut album, Sister Kate — a recording that was produced by Peter Asher and featured such prominent musicians as Danny Kortchmar, Leland Sklar, and Russ Kunkel. Now, on the 50th anniversary of that initial release, Taylor is poised to release her new album, Why Wait?, also produced by Asher and featuring a number of great artists from her original ’70s-era recording.
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Taylor and asked her about her musical childhood, her rise to fame, her musical output, in addition to details about her long-anticipated upcoming recording, Why Wait?
Spotlight Central: You were born in Boston, MA. Your dad was a medical doctor, but didn’t your mom study music in Boston at one point?
Kate Taylor: Yes, she did. She was a singer her whole life and studied voice at the New England Conservatory in Boston as a young adult. I think she would have liked to pursue a career in music and theater, but she met my dad, they started a family, and within six years she had five kids. And with respect to the idea of touring and performing at that time, with all the other work she had to do, she just had to put all that on the back burner. But, obviously, something was in there and it had to come out because she spawned all these — as Livingston calls us — “circus folk!”
Spotlight Central: [Laughs] You were raised in Chapel Hill, NC with your brothers: Alex, James, Livingston — now a professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music — and Hugh. We understand you participated in family singalongs where you all sang and played instruments?
Kate Taylor: As kids, we all had the opportunity to study music. There was a great music program in the public school system in Chapel Hill, and our parents also provided us with private music instruction if we wanted. In those days, our generation communicated through music. All the stars aligned and we were called to “join the chorus.”
So, yes, we did sing together songs we loved as kids. Mostly material from The Staples Singers and other groups, music that could hold a number of voices and that was fun to sing. We didn’t do any of it together as an official group until we were in our more adult years and had had our own separate careers, but we did come together a number of times for different charity events.
Spotlight Central: Growing up, what kind of music did you enjoy listening to?
Kate Taylor: In Chapel Hill there was a wide range of American popular music. There was rock and roll and pop music coming from the AM stations. There was bluegrass and country. This was an era when folk music was popular and a lot of people were writing songs about what was going on politically and culturally. We also listened to blues and R&B. Chapel Hill is a university town and a lot of wonderful artists came through — James Brown, Jose Feliciano, Ray Charles, Peter, Paul and Mary — the place was fertile ground for all different kinds of music. We grew up with many different musical influences and I think this shows in the choices all of us have made in the kinds of music we enjoy writing and performing.
Also, our mother was focused on getting us up to New York to see musical theater. She took each one of us independently up to the city — she took me to see Peter Pan and she took James to see Bye Bye Birdie — so she took each of us to see shows and I think it made quite an impression on us youngsters, visiting the big city and those spectacular Broadway theaters.
Spotlight Central: You started performing in different musical groups when you were a teenager. We’re told that one group you were involved with was called Peter, Paul and Mounds? Can you tell us more about that?
Kate Taylor: [Laughs] Oh, God, you’ve done your homework! It was a group my girlfriends and I worked up. We listened to a lot of artists of the day. Livingston called it the “folk music scare of the mid-‘60s.” Peter, Paul and Mary were part of that, so we created a take-off of their name.
Spotlight Central: And another group you were a part of was a junior high rock band which performed songs like “Do You Wanna Dance?” Do you remember that, as well?
Kate Taylor: Yes! We performed “Do You Wanna Dance,” and another song for our junior high talent show. James performed in that show. Peter, Paul and Mounds did, too, and our brother Alex was on the lighting crew and was stage manager. It was intoxicating! I mean, that was it; I got utterly hooked after that. Mom came to that show and went home and told the old man that he’d really missed something special.
Spotlight Central: We understand that, around 1969, you were living on Martha’s Vineyard when James recorded his first album for Apple Records in England and you went out to London to visit him. There, you met Peter Asher who heard you and James sing together in a very unusual setting?
Kate Taylor: Yes, we were invited out to Peter’s cottage in the countryside. It was an early June day; we had a lovely time. In the backyard was an empty ancient stone-lined swimming pool. James and I climbed down to the bottom of that pool and started singing together some of the songs we had sung as kids, like Charlie and Inez Foxx’s [sings “Mockingbird”] “Mockingbird/Say everybody have you heard?” and other tunes we had previously sung together.
I was having a great deal of fun singing in this echo-y space with brother James; I didn’t realize it was an audition of sorts. Later, when I was back home on the Vineyard, Peter gave me a call. He told me he was moving to Los Angeles and, as James’ manager and producer, they would now be working out of L.A. He asked if I wanted to come make a record and I said, “Let me think about it, YES!”
Those days were a wonderful time to be in Los Angeles. It was 1969. James helped me do the demo. Peter and James had put together an amazing band of musicians in L.A. to work on his new record, Sweet Baby James — Russ Kunkel on drums, Lee Sklar on bass, James’ childhood friend and good buddy Danny Kortchmar on guitar, Carole King on piano, among other players — and a lot of those musicians worked on my album, too.
Spotlight Central: And when you started working on your debut album, Sister Kate, weren’t you still a teenager?
Kate Taylor: I was 19 when Peter called me, but by the time the record came out I was 21. When I went out to L.A. it was 1969 and by the time the record came out it was 1971.
Spotlight Central: One of the songs you picked for Sister Kate was Elton John’s “Country Comfort.” What was it about that song that made you want to record it?
Kate Taylor: As much as I loved being in Los Angeles at that time, I really felt as if my home base was New England and Martha’s Vineyard and I was homesick sometimes. Here I was in Los Angeles, compiling songs and recording. We went to the Troubadour to hear Elton John who was playing his very first show in the United States. The joint was packed and he blew the roof off the place! At one point during the set, he played “Country Comfort,” and I thought, “Gosh this really reminds me of home” and I wanted to include it on my album.
I told Peter that I’d really love to record that song and Peter said, “I know Elton John’s manager. I’ll invite them over and you can ask Elton about it.” So we had a gathering over at Peter’s house. James was there, Elton was there, and Elton’s band was there, along with all of the other people who were traveling with them. And I took the chance to ask Elton if I could record the song. Tumbleweed Connection had just been released, and he said, “By all means, please record it,” and so we did.
Within the last five years or so, somebody sent me a clip of a concert Elton John did at Madison Square Garden. You have to remember that Elton’s career went from The Troubadour — which was a relatively small venue — to Madison Square Garden, within a year. On the videotape I was sent was Elton at one of his first shows at the Garden and as he was introducing a song he said, “Here’s a song that both Kate Taylor and Rod Stewart have recorded!” and then he played “Country Comfort.”
Spotlight Central: That’s awesome! And in addition to “Country Comfort,” you also recorded Livingston’s “Be That Way” along with James’ “You Can Close Your Eyes.” Did these songs resonate with you in a special way given the fact that your siblings had written them?
Kate Taylor: I love those songs and that my brothers had written them makes them that much more special. Livingston’s words felt really good to me; I love singing “Be That Way.” Also, at the time I was recording Sister Kate in Los Angeles, James was filming the movie, Two Lane Blacktop.
Spotlight Central: We remember that!
Kate Taylor: He was down in Little Rock, Arkansas filming the movie. He recorded, on a little cassette tape, a new song he had just written called “You Can Close Your Eyes,” and he sent it to me so I could be the first person to record it.
Spotlight Central: And such a great song, too! After you finished recording Sister Kate, we read your dad came to Los Angeles to visit you and while you were driving on the freeway, the two of you had a chat about your career. Do you recall that conversation?
Kate Taylor: [Laughs] My dad was visiting Los Angeles for a conference and we got together and were driving on the freeway. He asked me what I’d like to see happen with this career I was embarking upon, and I said, “Well, Dad, growing up with four brothers, what I’d like is when I start singing in the car and somebody leans over and turns on the radio, that it be me on the radio!” And he leaned over and turned on the radio and it was me on the radio!
Spotlight Central: [Laughs] That’s so great! We know that to promote Sister Kate, you started touring, backed by The Magic Duck Band. People who came to see you in concert said you were super energetic — dancing, doing kicks, and sometimes even venturing out into the crowds. Do you remember enjoying those performances at the time?
Kate Taylor: Yes, it was so much fun! I was a very excitable young lady and I loved singing and being on stage; it was very thrilling. And, yes, I pity the poor people who sat in the first rows — I mean, I would dance on their tables and take their drinks, oh dear — but I had some fun, yeah.
Spotlight Central: Not long after, you did a concert in Central Park with The Beach Boys, Ike and Tina Turner, and Boz Scaggs, where after the concert was shown on TV, you sort of backed off from your career a little. What happened there?
Kate Taylor: Well, I saw in that performance certain aspects of where I felt I was heading. I don’t know; it’s hard for me to describe. I thought to myself, “I need some grounding.” I could tell I needed to take stock and tune into my core and my connectedness.
I came home and visited a friend’s tipi. I sat inside by the little fire, leaned back and looked out the smoke hole and saw the stars and the cosmos and felt close to nature, and I just said, “I gotta have one.”
I bought some canvas, found a space that was big enough where I could lay out the canvas, asked a friend help me make the pattern for the tipi, and I hand-stitched the canvas. I went to Maine and I harvested some tall and slim pine trees out of the forest, brought them back to the Vineyard on the top of the car and set up my tipi.
And it was just what I needed. Like I said, I really needed some grounding, and I guess I took it pretty literally — I mean, there I was, you know?
Spotlight Central: And while you were “off the grid” like that, isn’t that when you started crafting the beads out of shell?
Kate Taylor: Yes. As a part of our life on the Vineyard, my friend, Charlie Witham — who later became my husband — was a student of Native American culture and art. We would go to museums and see the Native artifacts and beautiful things there. Part of what we saw were the beautiful wampum beads made out of quahog shell — beautiful purple and white beads. These beads were and are extraordinarily significant to the Native people — beyond jewelry, they used them to document their important events and they were a mnemonic device for their oral history — and Charlie realized these beads were made out of shell which grew in the ponds around Martha’s Vineyard.
We really wanted some of these beads but none had been made for over a century. We read up on how they were originally made and on their traditional uses — and how, when the colonists arrived, they made them for trade using metal tools for drilling and grinding. We started making the beads because we wanted some for ourselves and after showing them to friends, many asked us to make some for them. It became somewhat of a cottage industry. I like to think that, yes, they are beautiful and they are adornment, but they’re really beyond jewelry because of the deep tradition associated with them. So, yes, that’s when we started making the beads, and that continues to this day.
Spotlight Central: Around that time when you were living “off the grid,” we’re told Glenn Frey wrote a song for the Eagles which the group never released called “Get Up, Kate.” Some have suggested the song was written for you to encourage you to “go for it” with respect to your musical career. Do you have any recollections of that song?
Kate Taylor: I remember it vaguely, because, of course, who could forget that Glenn Frey wrote a song for them? He and I were good friends and I knew him and J.D. Souther when they were a duo before Glenn formed the Eagles. Glenn came to see me at my show at the Troubadour and I think, with that song, he was trying to let me know how much he had enjoyed my show.
Spotlight Central: And wasn’t it also around this time — or maybe a little after — when Peter Asher was managing you and your career, that you suggested to him that it would be ok with you if he managed Linda Ronstadt, as well?
Kate Taylor: I met Linda when I was in Los Angeles making my record and we became friends. She’s an amazing talent and a lovely gal. She had recorded a hit with The Stone Poneys and she was starting some more recording. She asked Peter if he would produce and manage her. Peter was producing and managing James and me; we were his only clients. Peter told her that he felt it might be a little too close to the bone to have two girl singers recording and touring at the same time and he declined her request.
But when I came home and realized I needed time to catch my breath, I said to both Peter and Linda, “You know, you guys should work together.” They did just that, and I love that they had the opportunity to work together. They made incredible and iconic records and had a wonderful partnership.
Spotlight Central: In 1978, James signed with Columbia Records, and he offered to produce your next recording, Kate Taylor, which included your duet charting single, “It’s In His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song),” in addition to the critically acclaimed “Harriet Tubman.” Do you happen to have a personal favorite cut from that recording?
Kate Taylor: Well, I love both of those songs, and there were a lot of other great moments on that record. My husband, Charlie Witham, had written a song called “Tiah’s Cove,” and I love that song. I also loved singing with my brothers on that album. I recorded the Ike and Tina Turner song, “A Fool in Love,” and my brothers sang backup with me. That song rocks, and to sing it with my brothers was really special for me.
Spotlight Central: Your next album was It’s in There (And It’s Got to Come Out), a collection of soul and R&B covers recorded at Muscle Shoals with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. In our own music collection, we happen to have a never-before-played copy of the LP, but we’re curious to know your thoughts about going down to Alabama and working with all of those great performers down there.
Kate Taylor: Oh, my God! We’d done the Kate Taylor album with James in New York at Atlantic Studios, which was hallowed ground. I toured with that record and then Don DeVito, who worked at Columbia — a lovely guy, who has since passed away — came up with the idea that I go to Muscle Shoals to make a record. I was thrilled! I went down there and Barry Beckett, the keyboard player in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, produced my album, and all of those wonderful musicians played on it. And, you know, who gets to work with these people? It was awesome!
Spotlight Central: Is it true that during the ’80s when you were back on Martha’s Vineyard and making beads that possibly one of the most famous women in the whole world came to visit you at your home?
Kate Taylor: [Laughs] Well, we were making beads and people were commissioning us to make them. Jackie Onassis had moved into the town where I live and had seen the beads and wanted to come see more of them. I got a call from her caretaker, a dear friend of mine, who said that Jackie would like to come over. I thought, “Oh my God! I have two days. I must clean!” I started up in one eave, and cleaned the complete and utter whole entire place. And Jackie came for the visit. She was very gracious and beautiful, and she did ask us to make a bracelet for her daughter and one for her friend.
Spotlight Central: That’s so neat! Just a moment ago, you were saying how much you enjoyed performing with your brothers on the Kate Taylor album. We’re not exactly sure, but we seem to recall that in the ’80s you and all of your brothers — Alex, James, Livingston, and even Hugh — performed live at least once or twice on TV. Do you have any memories of being on television singing with all of your siblings?
Kate Taylor: Back in ’81, Hugh, Alex, and I had a band called Skin Tight. Every so often James and Livingston would join us on stage. A friend of ours, Jimmy Pullis, ran a club called JP’s in Manhattan. It was a vibrant and fun all-night hangout and musicians and friends would gather there after shows. Jimmy had friends who were developing the South Street Seaport Museum and he wanted to help them raise money. He asked us if we would consider putting a show together for a fundraiser and we said “Sure,” knowing we could slip right into it with the work we’d already been doing with Skin Tight. This was in August of ’81.
Two nights before the concert event, we went on Tom Snyder’s The Tomorrow Show, and performed some of our songs. And a few years later we were invited to appear on The Today Show for one of their Christmas Day shows.
Spotlight Central: That must have been really special getting to sing with all four of your brothers?
Kate Taylor: So much fun — they are so much fun to sing with!
Spotlight Central: And what’s better than family harmony?
Kate Taylor: I know!
Spotlight Central: In the mid-1990s, you teamed up with Bob Dylan’s bassist, Tony Garnier, and started working on your first record in two decades. That album, Beautiful Road, however, didn’t come out until 2002. Why did that process take so long, and do you have a favorite song from that recording — especially considering that so many songs on it were written by your husband, Charlie?
Kate Taylor: We worked on that record starting in 1995. It was co-produced by Tony and Charlie. Tony was touring with Dylan, so there were long stretches between sessions because Tony and Dylan were always on the road.
As we were making the album, when there was all the millennial stuff was going on, we worked up “Auld Lang Syne” and felt that would be a wonderful song to put on the album. James had come up with a beautiful arrangement — of course, you know anything that James touches turns into a beautiful arrangement — and he sang it with me. That’s one of my favorites.
I love the title track, Beautiful Road, written by Erica Wheeler, but it’s an especially meaningful album for me because we recorded many songs written by my late husband, Charlie. I was listening to the album the other day and I heard again a song he wrote called “Golden Key” that I love. The other songs that he wrote for it are just as special. He was a beautiful lyricist and poet.
Spotlight Central: We were just listening to it, too, and in addition to the quality of the lyrics, your voice sounds beautiful, the guitar work is great, and it’s recorded so well, too.
Kate Taylor: Thank you.
Spotlight Central: In 2009, you released your most recent album, Fair Time!
Kate Taylor: Yes, something that is very gratifying for me about Fair Time! is that it’s a collection of songs that I either wrote or co-wrote. I produced it with my dear pals Billy Derby and Sam Zucchini.
Spotlight Central: At a significant birthday party in 2019, we’re told your agent brought up the idea of a “reunion album” as the 50th anniversary of Sister Kate approached. Can you tell us more about your new project, Why Wait?
Kate Taylor: I had been talking for awhile to my dear friend and agent, Keith Putney — who happens to share the birthday with me — about what my next recording project might be. Keith said, “You know, the 50th anniversary of Sister Kate is coming up.” Now, this was pre-COVID, and we had no idea whether this could ever happen, but we were dreaming big. And Keith said, “It’s going to be the 50th anniversary of Sister Kate. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get back in the studio with Peter Asher and do another record?” And I thought, “That would be a dream come true!” I’d watched Peter make incredible records with many wonderful artists, and I thought, “I would love to get in the studio with him again.”
Peter and I had lately been doing a few shows together, and he really is like family as he had worked with James for 20 years or more. We had stayed in touch, so we were connected, and then COVID hit and everybody was on lock down at home.
Spotlight Central: Yes, we know!
Kate Taylor: So there were no tours, no gigs, and a number of the same players from my first record were all sidelined in L.A. Peter was in L.A. too, and the stars aligned.
We got a studio. Peter works with engineer Nathaniel Kunkel and he came aboard for this project. Peter and I decided on the songs we wanted to record. Our good friend, the wonderful keyboardist, musician and arranger, Jeff Alan Ross, was very helpful, working with Peter to pull the music together.
I booked a flight to Los Angeles, flying with two masks and a shield, thinking “Don’t anyone touch me!” I happily made it to L.A., we made the record, and it’s been a magical, special, wonderful adventure in the middle of all the challenges of COVID.
Spotlight Central: The album is named after an original song you wrote, “Why Wait?” What was the inspiration for that song?
Kate Taylor: I was looking around one day and I thought, “Well, you know, if I was gonna dream up what I would want to see in Heaven, this would be it.” This kept happening to me, and then it occurred to me, “Why wait? Why wait for Heaven? It’s here. It’s now.” So the song was born.
Spotlight Central: The album also includes covers of some of our favorite songs including Tommy James’ “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” and a unique arrangement of The Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine.” We’re also told your “greatest hits” — your daughters — appear on the album, too. You’ve worked with your brothers, but it had to have been great getting to work with the next generation of Taylors?
Kate Taylor: [Laughs] I know, we just keep making more! You can’t roll out of bed without landing on a Taylor! Not only do we keep making more, but they’re all making music and art, and are highly creative people.
Both of my daughters are wonderful singers. One of them is a documentary filmmaker, and the other one is, at the moment, a full-time mom; she’s got three daughters. She graduated from Berklee College of Music and is an amazing singer. Anytime I can get my daughters on stage with me, it is the best!
Spotlight Central: Is there anything else you’d like to add — or anything you’d like to say to all of the folks who’ve been following you for 50 years since Sister Kate initially came out?
Kate Taylor: First off, thank you all for being there at the beginning and through all of this! And I’m saying now, “Why Wait?” — I truly can’t wait for everyone to hear the new record! It’s a collection of songs that have real meaning for me. Some of the songs are ones I’ve not sung before, but many are songs I’ve sung since I was a kid. I’m so grateful to the audiences who have stood by me, and I look forward to meeting new “old friends.” I’m delighted to bring this new record to life and I can report to you that the beat goes on!
To learn more about Kate Taylor, please go to katetaylor.com.