Let There Be Drums
The Ventures' Leon Taylor
by Steve Stav
After the Ventures' induction performance at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame ceremony March 10, legendary bandleader Paul Shaffer grabbed a mic to pay his respects to the axe gods' drummer and his late father.
Ironic, how one of the world's greatest guitar bands can be so well remembered for the drums.
Bob Bogle, Nokie Edwards, and Don Wilson were established stars when they first met ace L.A. stickman Mel Taylor in 1962. When Taylor replaced Howie Johnson (who had been injured in a car crash), the Ventures transformed from a great group to the stuff of legend. In the next few years, the quartet recorded two fistfuls' worth of landmark albums.
Bridging the percussion gap between Gene Krupa and Keith Moon, Mel Taylor was one of rock's first powerhouse drummers. His complexity and supremely confident, fiery style blew almost everyone else away, like dropping dynamite into a trout pond. This approach was exactly what the Ventures needed -- someone who could propel one of rock's most hard-charging live acts around the globe.
With few pauses, Mel Taylor's swinging beat propelled the group for the next 34 years, selling millions and millions of albums along the way.
In 1996, fans around the world were stunned by the news of his sudden death. Their grief was somewhat tempered, however, by the announcement of the Ventures' new drummer -- one of Mel's sons.
Now in his 12th year behind the Ventures' kit, Leon Taylor commands a crowd in a fashion very similar to his father's. And while the apple certainly didn't fall far from the tree, he's never traded on his lineage. A seemingly tireless drumming machine, he brought a certain aggressive exuberance to the stage — not that his fountain of youth-tapping bandmates were lacking energy. An extraordinarily fit 52, Leon appears 10 years younger; somewhat soft-spoken, he's perhaps the Ventures' quietest member, offstage.
A week after the band's historic trip to the Waldorf-Astoria, I talked to this amazing percussionist about the Hall of Fame induction and the band's tradition of touring Japan, as well as a tragic, yet remarkable chapter in the Ventures' 49-year odyssey.
Of all the things you experienced about the Hall of Fame induction, what will you remember the most?
One of the coolest things was the rehearsal with Paul Shaffer and his band the Saturday before the ceremony. He's a really nice guy; he seemed really excited to meet everybody.
He seemed to be very excited about it, during the show.
It was pretty cool. He let us do our thing, go though "Hawaii 5-0" on our own; then he worked his players into it, one at a time.
Was it his idea to do that song?
Actually, it was ours. Of course, we wanted to play "Walk, Don't Run," because it was the band's first big hit. We thought about some other songs, like "Bulldog," "Yellowjacket," or "Driving Guitars," but we wanted to do something that everyone would recognize — and everybody knows "Hawaii 5-0". And Don really wanted to play it, because with Paul's horns and everyone backing us, it would really sound like the original [recording].
It sounded great, really fabulous. I would've never imagined it — the Ventures with the CBS Orchestra.
When we got home late on Tuesday evening, my wife wanted to watch it — I wanted to go to bed and see it in the morning. She said, "I want to watch it now!" so we caught our portion of the show. I thought we sounded pretty good.
Were you allowed to breathe the same air as Madonna?
No... I heard she had a section of the balcony blocked off for her. After we did our performance, we spent quite some time in the press room doing interviews and photos. By the time we got back out to the ballroom, she was already into her acceptance speech. She sat up front for Iggy Pop, and then she disappeared.
Did you get to spend any time with your presenter, John Fogerty, or any of the other inductees?
We talked a little bit with John backstage, before we went out. He said, "I'm nervous!" and I said, "Join the crowd, I'm nervous, too." I met Billy Joel backstage, and he was really cool. We talked about motorcycles; I have a Harley, and he has a company that restores vintage bikes. I also got the chance to meet Tom Hanks at the after-party, and got some pictures with Dave Clark. Everyone was really nice.
It must have been somewhat intimidating, being on stage in front of big-label presidents, the Ertegun family, Chevy Chase, Tom Hanks...
I really don't get nervous when I play -- back behind the kit, I'm in my own world. But talking at a podium, being the center of attention, that drives me crazy. I was nervous, and I didn't say all the things I wanted to say. But I think it came out all right.
Your father's impact on the music world must have really hit home that night.
Yeah, it did. I mean, my dad sure influenced me, and my playing. When we're on tour, I hear from drummers of all ages who grew up listening to my dad.
Onstage, your father had this great image — he was one cool cat. But what was Mel like, away from the spotlight?
What you saw onstage was him. I mean, he was just as cool offstage. He had a great personality.
Who were some of your inspirations, musically? I know you played in all kinds of bands in the '80s and '90s.
Obviously, my first influence was the Ventures... I started drumming when I was about ten. I tried to play what my dad was playing, which of course at that age was impossible. But as I got older, I analyzed his style, and it always stuck with me. But I also listened to a lot of other stuff -- Led Zeppelin, Cream, Iron Butterfly -- and Mitch Mitchell was a big influence. Genesis, Kansas, Rush -- the powerhouse drummers in those bands were influential, too.
Could we talk about the circumstances of your joining the Ventures? I remember your first gig was the last show of the Japanese tour that your dad had to quit.
Yeah, it was in August of '96. I came out to Japan to do a memorial show. Leading up to that, he had called me and said he was thinking about leaving the tour and coming home. He was feeling really tired, and the doctors in Japan thought he might have bronchitis. He needed to have some more tests done, and he asked me to come out and replace him on the tour for a few weeks. Then it got to the point where the doctors thought it might be more serious than bronchitis.
I thought, "Well, I don't think I want to be 5,000 miles away in Japan when my dad is here, going through whatever he's going to be going through." The band got in touch with a drummer named Bruce Gary, who my dad had met before. He flew out and joined them for the last few weeks of the tour.
My dad came home on August first or second, and he passed away on the 11th. It was a very, very aggressive form of cancer — even when we came home, we didn't think it was that serious.
I went and visited him in the hospital, and he asked me if I'd take over for him. I hadn't thought that much about it, as far as a long-term situation goes. I told him sure, it would be an honor. Shortly after that, he passed away. He hung on until he was sure that the legacy would continue; I kind of think that he was hanging on until he got the answer he was looking for.
I remember reading the news of your father's death in the paper. Nobody had any warning, it really was a shock. I can't imagine how hard this was to deal with.
It was a sad day, definitely. I was thinking about it this morning, with the Hall of Fame and all that. But looking at the bright side of things -- I was fortunate that, being a drummer, I was able to step in and continue his work.
It must have been a very dramatic realignment of your life -- suddenly, you're in the Ventures, and traveling the world. Not to mention the technical aspects -- that's a lot of songs to learn!
It took a while... every tour, I learned some more. At any given time on stage, there's hundreds to choose from.
When I first joined the band, I tried to emulate my dad. It wasn't really a conscious thing, but people noticed it. But the more I played with the guys, the more my own style emerged. [Joining the band] definitely changed my life; my wife and I didn't know how it would impact us until it started happening, being on the road a lot and all that.
Had you visited Japan before 1996?
No, I never had.
What were some of your early impressions of touring there?
The first time was that memorial show for my dad, which turned out to be a sort of "passing of the torch." It was very, very overwhelming, with interview after interview leading up to the show. It's almost like a fog now... it was very humbling, with Japanese musicians on the bill, paying tribute.
As far as first impressions go... I don't know if you've heard of this or not, but Japanese audiences are very subdued. They don't show much emotion at the shows, except for applause between songs. They're very polite, and listen to the music. I thought that was kinda strange, and I still haven't quite gotten used to it. I mean, when we play in the States, people go crazy and jump and down. Fans sometimes do that in Japan, but it's very, very rare.
Am I over-imagining the band's celebrity in Japan, their status as revered musicians?
No, it's that way. Of course, we don't get mobbed on the street like the guys did in the old days. Back in the '60s, the population wasn't as dense as it is now, and the Ventures were one of the first "electrified" artists to visit Japan. It really was a big deal. Now, there's of course all kinds of pop music in Japan, but the band is still popular — there's always fans waiting for us when we get there.
Are there still Ventures tribute bands all over Japan?
Oh, yeah, every big city has one: the Osaka Ventures, the Hiroshima Ventures, the Tokyo Ventures. A lot of the small towns have one, too; I can't count them all.
I watched Beloved Invaders this morning. What a trip -- it's the Japanese version of A Hard Day's Night. And the Ventures are on fire onstage, really swingin'. Your dad was swingin'.
[Laughing] When we pick songs for the Japanese tours, I say, "Let's do everything '65 speed! Remember Beloved Invaders? Let's do everything at that tempo!" and they all look at me and say, "You're nuts." Except for [Ventures guitarist] Bob Spalding, who says, "Ok, let's do it!" Everybody else thinks I'm crazy.
What do you like to do in your spare time in Japan?
We've made a lot of friends over there over the years; there's a guy who has a bar in Hiroshima called Pirate Jack's. When I'm in town, I go see him. His bar is tiny, holds 20-25 people; there's Ventures memorabilia all over the walls: my father's gloves, his sticks, my sticks, a Ventures lighter, even a Ventures yo-yo. When I go there, I feel like I'm at home, because he's such a nice guy.
There's another friend, a guy in Fukuoka named Jackie, he owns Jackie's Bar. It's got live entertainment; he's a drummer who was influenced by my dad. When I'm there he gets me behind the kit and we play a few songs. Great place.
I've done a lot of sight-seeing in the past, but not so much in the last few years because our tour schedule has been tighter. The castles are awesome, amazing history. I like to go out walking, it gets boring sitting in the hotel room. Don doesn't like to go out much, and Bob Bogle didn't like to go out, either. But Bob Spalding and I go for a walk, and see whatever city we're in.
Has the band been working on a new CD?
We not working on anything right now; we recently recorded four songs for EMI, and they've got another four songs for us to do. Basically, they wanted us to record songs from Rocky — "Gonna Fly Now" and "Eye of the Tiger" -- for the release of the last Rocky movie in Japan.
Also, we did two songs from La Vie En Rose...
Yeah, they wanted all these songs for their download site. We also did a Christmas song, "Last Christmas" by Wham!
Edith Piaf and Wham! Man, you guys will "Venture-ize" anything. Do you ever go into the studio and say, "Do we have to do this song?"
[Laughing] All the time! No, not really. Our label, M & I, has definite ideas as to what they want — usually an album theme of some sort. We always have the option to throw in bonus tracks, though, original songs or whatever.
Bob Spalding and I have been working on some new material, originals. One of the reasons, I think, why we haven't written a lot of originals lately is the guys are spread out all across the country. That makes it hard to share ideas.
In the late '90s, the Ventures released some really cool originals -- on Wild Again II, New Depths...
Wild Again II was the first studio recording I did with the guys, and I think it's my favorite out of all the recordings I've done.
That really rocked, one of the best albums the band had done in years.
I think you're right. It was a very unique project, with a lot of guest stars. There was a lot of energy, and a great choice of songs.
I know the band is in the middle of planning activities for the 50th anniversary. What would you like to do, personally?
Apart from The Ventures On Stage (1965, Dolton), my favorite Ventures record is New Testament (1971, United Artists). I just love that album. For the 50th anniversary, I thought it would be cool to do... not songs from New Testament, but similar, classic-rock kind of stuff that the Ventures could interpret in our own style, and do justice to. Songs with strong melodies — basically, without the lyrics, there's just the melody.
One of the ideas I was pitching to the label was to record some suitable songs from Billboard's Top 100 from 1968 to say, 1980, plus toss in some originals. Don thinks this is a good idea, too. The label seems interested, but nothing has been finalized.
Fifty years — what an amazing thing to consider. I've always felt that the Ventures' fantastic relationship with the fans has been an important part of your success.
The fans have made us who we are. Without the fans, the Ventures would still be playing in a garage. When I hear a musician say, "I don't wanna sign [autographs]," I think, "What do you mean, you don't want to sign?" That's what we do. We play our show, and then we talk to the fans and sign whatever they have in their hands.
And I love talking to the kids... there are still young people who are learning to play guitar because of the Ventures. That's cool, very cool.
The Ventures will play Walt Disney World's Epcot Center April 24-26.