University City

April 21, 2013

Blues player pours troubled past into tunes

No one who talks to Walter Taylor can avoid taking in the scar that’s gouged from the top edge of his cheekbone to the corner of his lips.

No one who talks to Walter Taylor can avoid taking in the scar that’s gouged from the top edge of his cheekbone to the corner of his lips.

It’s deep. It’s smooth.

Just like him.

“I had the chance to have plastic surgery once, but I decided not to have it,” Taylor said of the hook-shaped mark that curves along the left side of his face. His laid-back reply showed he’s shrugged off any insecurity about it years ago.

“It’s a signature thing now. It’s a blues thing.”

If details like that add flavor to a blues singer, Taylor, the frontman for The Say What Band, is a well-seasoned musician.

Each week he gets together with Jerome Pendergrass, Randy Caldwell and Robert Corry – the other members of the rhythm and blues band – to flush out the leftover fumes from a past choked by regret and mistakes.

“I mean you name it, I’ve done it. It’s been a long, long road, and I’ve been through the wringer,” said Taylor, his deep voice sounding weathered as he reached toward old memories.

But that is how blues players are made.

If you had met Taylor in the 1960s, you probably would have admired the junior high school boy. Back then, the street-smart youth created a complete drum set made up of pieces scrounged from his dad’s musician friends and school band throwaways. He would beat the mismatched drums – blue, gold and red – until “I got beat.”

“We were living in a two-bedroom apartment, and there was like five of us, plus mom and dad,” said Taylor.

The little band he put together back then even played at a competition once during Charlotte’s Festival in the Park at Freedom Park.

“I think we did pretty good,” said Taylor.

But his high school years weren’t as sweet.

“I was kind of one of the bad ones, at one time,” said Taylor, who admitted he made a lot of money selling LSD and marijuana in the halls of Independence High School in the early 1970s.

“That money will change you when it’s coming fast,” he said. “That’s how I got my first new set of drums.”

It was also when Taylor got the scar. A case of mistaken identity, he said, prompted a stranger to slice his face with a razor blade during a break between sets at a gig.

Those years set in motion a downward spiral. In 1975, Taylor became a convicted felon, serving nine years in prison for robbery.

“One time. One mistake,” he shook his head.

But prison was the fork in a path that led to Taylor’s redemption.

“You know, when you have people telling you when to look at the TV, when you can eat, when you can go smoke a cigarette … ,” he said, without finishing the thought. Then he said: “I haven’t been a good boy all my life, but I’ve been out of trouble for 35 years, and I’ve never been back.”

Taylor said he was lucky. After he served his time, employers gave him a second chance. It took time, but he eventually earned the trust of his family again, too.

Now at least once a month, the retired truck driver and his bandmates land a paying gig, and the guitar licks, bass slaps and drum raps spill all those flavors that brought him up to this point.

The mismatched drum set is long gone. So is the one bought with drug money. The only visible reminder of his past is the scar.

Through it all, Taylor said, the music never left him, and he hopes others will keep that in mind wherever they are in their own paths.

“That’s why I do what I do, so that people don’t forget that music still sounds good. Music is still good.”

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