Larry Taylor's Union Blues

OVER THE LAST FEW MONTHS, WE’VE LOOKED AT SOME BRITISH BLUES bassists from the 1960s, and then crossed the Atlantic to examine the work of Harvey Brooks.
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Over the last few months, we've looked at some British blues bassists from the 1960s, and then crossed the Atlantic to examine the work of Harvey Brooks. This month, we’ll join the two worlds by delving into the work of Larry Taylor, a native New Yorker, and his work on famed British bluesman John Mayall’s 1970 recording USA Union. As a teenage guitarist, I was heavily into Mayall’s work of the late ’60s through the early ’70s. Albums like The Turning Point, Empty Rooms, USA Union, and Jazz Blues Fusion lived on my turntable as I absorbed the guitar work, but little did I realize that Larry Taylor’s bold underpinning was making an indelible mark on my soon-to-be-realized bass consciousness. Coming back to these records after almost 40 years, I was astounded at how much of the bass playing I knew by heart, and just how much Taylor had influenced me without realizing it.

Taylor’s early work displays a firm grasp of James Jamerson’s bass style, but with a crisp articulation that also brings to mind aspects of Chuck Rainey. One of Larry’s earliest tracks is the surf instrumental “Moon Dawg” with the Gamblers, said to be one of the first instrumental surf bands. Even at the breakneck tempo, Taylor’s bass speaks with an authority atypical of the genre. He went on to be a session bassist in L.A., playing on the Monkees’ hit recordings before signing up to become a member of the blues/rock supergroup Canned Heat. Taylor appeared with the band at the Monterey Pop and Woodstock festivals, and scored multiple hits before leaving in 1970 to join forces with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.

Mayall’s group started as an early British blues outfit, contemporary with the Yardbirds. While both groups briefly included Eric Clapton on guitar, Mayall’s Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton is often critically held up as the pinnacle of British blues. When Mayall moved to L.A., Taylor joined his “USA Union” band, which led to several albums showcasing his strong groove, expressive chops, and sheer chutzpah. Check out the track “Off the Road” on USA Union, for nearly three minutes of Mayall singing to Taylor’s solo bass accompaniment— a radical idea in 1970. Mayall’s “To a Princess” on Empty Rooms features a duel between Taylor and bassist Steve Thompson, sparring on opposite sides of the stereo field, pre-dating Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom” by 14 years.

This month’s example is a look at Larry Taylor’s playing on “Deep Blue Sea” from Mayall’s USA Union. It’s essentially a 12-bar blues form with an extended tag that starts in bar 10. The laid back funky feel brings to mind “Ode to Billie Joe,” and the sparse rhythm accompaniment (which sounds like hippies shaking tambourines and banging on the back of their guitars) really lets the full impact of the bass hit you. Example 1 is very similar to Taylor’s line during Harvie Mandel’s guitar solo. The line is full of classic R&B material—box patterns, chromatic approach runs, anticipated downbeats, and lots of percussive dead notes. He uses the pattern in bar 1 throughout the track to congeal the groove, applying different answer phrases in bars 2, 4, and 8 to vary the line. His use of ghosted dead notes gives the line bounce, and the deadnote “drags” in bars 4, 6, 10, 14, and 16 are particularly upright bass-inspired.

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Taylor uses a crisply performed 16th-note double chromatic approach run in bars 8, 10, and 12 that sets up the next chord with authority and drives the feel forward. By today’s standards, this line may seem commonplace, but in 1970, there were not many bass players on the scene with this level of command. Taylor’s strong feel, dynamic approach, and decisive articulation made him one of the leading players of that time.

Larry Taylor went on to form a long association with songwriter Tom Waits, playing with him live and in the studio since 1980, as well as making appearances on records by Leo Kottke, Sugarcane Harris, the Blasters, John Lee Hooker, Ry Cooder, Charlie Musselwhite, J.J. Cale, Wanda Jackson, Buddy Guy, and many others. For several decades, Taylor has focused primarily on upright playing, but his early work on electric bass is a treasure trove of cool grooves. Check him out!



Ed “the Bass Whisperer” Friedland plays, writes, and teaches out of his bass base in Austin, Texas.


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John Mayall, USA Union [Polydor, 1970]